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A Collop of Land

Saturday, November 15th, 2014

In response to the Good Word collop, Nicholas Leonard sent me this followup. I thought some of you might enjoy it, too:

Collop in the Irish Language, Gaeilge, is colpa. It was and is still spoken in some regions as a unit of grazing for various farm animals, the grazing habits of a cow being the yardstick for the rest. Of course, the quantity and quality between grazing on poor land and on rich land varied greatly, so a collop could be, in effect, a variable unit according to the quality of the land.

The following extract illustrates the vital importance of the collop in old Ireland as explained by the Tailor Buckley to Eric Cross (from The Tailor and Ansty, by Eric Cross, Mercier Press reprint 1972: Chapter 5, page 31):

“Well, collops was the old style of reckoning for land, before the people got too bloodyfull smart and educated, and let the Government or anyone else do their thinking for them. A collop was the old count for the carrying power of land. The grazing of one cow or two yearling heifers or six sheep or twelve goats or six geese and a gander was one collop. The grazing of a horse was three collops.”

“I tell you, that was a better style of reckoning than your acres and your yards. It told you the value of a farm. Not the size of it. An acre might be an acre of rock, but you know where you are with a collop. There is a man over there on the other side of the valley has four thousand acres of land and barely enough real land to graze four cows in the whole lot. But you would think he had a grand farm when you talk of acres. The devil be from me! But the people in the old day had sense.”

Colpa was also a term for the calf of the leg as well as for the handle of a flail or cudgel—two essential implements in olden times.

Games and Sports

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Today I received an e-mail from an old e-friend in South Africa, Chris Stewart. The Good Word restive brought returned a memory from his childhood…but wait, let him explain it.”

“I trust all is well with you? Here we have been having blazingly hot clear summer days, interspersed with days of lightning storms and sporadic torrential rainfall.”

“Today’s good word touched a nerve. As a child, I spent a term at home in quarantine due to having contracted hepatitis. It was frustrating and boring, so I read everything I could find in the house, including an entire set of encyclopedia cover to cover.”

“Then, there was a singular book called (if I remember correctly) The Encyclopedia of Games, Sports and Pastimes. This very comprehensive and wide ranging volume, which has sadly been lost to the family, took some effort to define terms.”

“A distinction which has stuck in my mind ever since, is that sports (which can indeed be engaged in purely for fun and entertainment) have a component tied to survival whereas, by contrast, games are merely for fun, even if they do teach you something.”

“I don’t recall the exact distinction between games and pastimes; perhaps it has to do with rules or the absence thereof. So, hunting, fishing, archery, swimming, wrestling and so forth are clearly Sports, whereas Rugby, tennis, soccer and the like are games. While I would consider the purpose of the card game solitaire to be a pastime, it must surely be a game.”

“So what is it that galls me? Seeing games (such as football, usually involving a ball) being referred to as sports.”

My response:

An interesting distinction you make between games and sports. I have never heard the distinction before, so it must belong to your idiolect alone.

However, having said that, there is a distinction that I have always thought the Olympic Committed should make between those sports that have inherent scores and those that must be judged, like ice-skating. I have often noticed that scores in figure-skating always reveal the native lands of the judges: they always score skaters from their country higher than other judges. If a skater is so unfortunate as to have no judge from his or her country, they do not have that prejudice built into their score.

I think sports that have no inherent scoring, should be excluded from the Olympics in order to exclude this sort of prejudice in scoring. Maybe we could fit this characteristic in your distinction. Sports would then include activities with no inherent scoring, while games would include those that do. Hunting, fishing, solitaire, wrestling would therefore quality as sports, while basketball, football, and baseball would qualify as games. Not far from the distinction you make.

We would have to have a third word for those activities that have winners without scoring. These would include racing, such as swimming, track, biking, all revolving around timing, times. We might include them with games that could be included in the Olympics without ruffling my feathers.

Longest two-word sentence?

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

Here is a sentence in Dutch composed of 10 instances of the word bergen which someone identified only as Adriaan contributed to our Dutch Tongue-twister page.

Als bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen, bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen.
When lots of mountains deposit lots of mountains, lots of mountains deposit lots of mountains.

I don’t speak Dutch, but it seems at least to be grammatical to my German ear if bergen can mean “lots of” and “deposit”.

Can any of yall confirm my inclination? Is it grammatical?

Maps of All the World’s Languages

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

Here are maps of where all the world’s languages are spoken: http://www.muturzikin.com/

Pope Hilarius

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

George Kovac wrote today in response to our Good Word hilarious, “Bob, and of course, there was Pope Hilarius, who reigned from 461 to 468. You cannot make up material this good.”

“I was disappointed the current Pope chose ‘Francis’ instead of reaching back to revive this name, so that when someone says, ‘This new pope is kind’, I could respond, ‘Yes, he’s Hilarius 2.'”

Books that Should be Written

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

New! Books that Should be Written (and by whom) in our linguistic fun section. Just click the link and you’ll be there.

Eve Blunt Created a Poem from “Dodder”

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Dodder

To walk with an unsteady gait,
as if from old age or other frailty.
To shuffle, teeter, hobble.
To move forward feebly and unsteadily.
To muddle, stumble.

Travelling as touteren: to waver or swing.
Totter, toddle; an unsteady walk.
Did dodder produce doddle, which ended up dawdle?
This word wanders haltingly in circles within circles within circles.

–Eve Blunt

A Letter from Australia

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

I recently received this message from Sally Dunkerly in Australia:

Dear Dr Goodword,

My name is Sally, I’m fifteen years old and clearly not the best with the English language. However, I have recently finished reading your incredible book, The Hundred most Beautiful Words in English and fell in love with it right from ailurophile. I loved the words you put in there, and the examples you included of how to use the words, sounded so nice that now I can’t wait to read more of your books!

I also want to tell you my favourite word. It’s not very pretty or interesting and we use it all the time without thinking about it. My favourite word is if, I just love it because it hints at a possibility, some sort of unknown and we might have to make a choice. ‘If the house burns down’ or ‘If i win the lottery’, ‘if he’s lying to me’—it is just one of those words that is so commonly used that people don’t understand it’s mysterious beauty. It’s such a dainty word, additionally, it doesn’t contain a single ugly sound, maybe because it only has one syllable, but it’s still beautiful to me!

I apologise because this won’t be the most exciting thing you read today, and that my fifteen-year-old English and typical Australian laziness with my words may annoy you. I know it’s far-fetched, but I’m aspiring to be a novelist some day, and the beautiful words you have shown me in your book are really going to add life to the pages I’ve written so far, so thank you for helping me with my biggest dream.

Yours sincerely,

Sally

As a former teacher, I love to receive letters like this. I have never had any desire to influence people; I prefer affecting them. This note seems to indicate I’ve done that in Australia. My response was this:

Your letter was exactly what I love to receive. I was a teacher for 36 years and, as you might know, teachers do not work for money, but moments like the one you gave me. As I usually say to someone who offers gratitude for my work: “All appreciation is appreciated.”

You have a good sense of words. That’s good if you plan to be a poet, but if you plan to be a novelist, you will need to be a good story teller. There is a movie you should see: Wonder Boys (2001) with Tobey Maguire and Michael Douglas. They do an imagination exercise in which they visit restaurants and bars, select someone there, and make up a story about him or her based on how they are dressed and how they comport themselves.

There is another movie with an imagination exercise, called The Magic of Belle Isle with Morgan Freeman (2012). He takes an aspiring novelist onto an empty street and asks, “What don’t you see?” She, of course, says, “Nothing,” immediately, but by the end of the film, she can see things that are not there.

I never taught creative writing and was never a novelist. (As expectable I was a passable poet, who published a poem in the last issue of the New York Times that carried poems back in July 1971. I’ve often wondered what my role was in replacing the poetry in the Times with a paid ad from Mobil Oil. I was never a good story-teller. I hope these two films help you; you can get them from Netflix.

Good luck, and thank you again for your lovely letter.

I ran if January 6, 2014.