Humpty-Dumpty Words

One of my all-time favourite authors has been Lewis Carrol with his Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandThrough the Looking-Glass, and The Hunting of the Snark. More than the story it has been the language that always amused and fascinated me. The made-up, nonsensical sounding words like slithy and mimsy, frabjous and galumph were such fun to read aloud, and try to use in other contexts, even though one did not exactly know what they meant. Alice herself was equally confused on this count, and in the story she approaches Humpty Dumpty and asks him to elucidate the meaning of the some of these.  Humpty Dumpty replies: “Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’. ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active’. You see it’s like a portmanteau–there are two meanings packed up into one word.” Humpty Dumpty uses the analogy of a portmanteau–the French word for a dual-compartment suitcase to explain that these are words that contain aspects of two distinct words fused into one new word. So ‘mimsy’ is a blending of flimsy and miserable, and  ‘frabjous’ is a blend of either fabulous and joyous, or fair and joyous, while  ‘galumph’ comes from a blend of ‘triumph’ and ‘gallop’.

And so it is that Humpty Dumpty introduced the concept and term Portmanteau words to describe a word that is formed by combining two different terms to create a new entity.

Today Portmanteau words have become so much a part of our vocabulary that we do not realise that they are blended and coined words. We use words like smog (smoke+fog), motel (motor+hotel), modem (modulation+demodulation), motorcade (motor+cavalcade), netizen (internet + citizen), and even internet (international+network), as if they have always been there.

Portmanteau words are a great favourite with the entertainment industry—from Cineplex, infotainment and infomercial, to Bollywood; from Brangelina to our own Nickyanka; from celebutant(e) to chillax we even have emoticons and fanzines that coin and create a whole new vocabulary!

People no longer rough it out, they go glamping (glamour+camping), and bigger than big is ginormous (giant+enormous)! There are some who suffer from affluenza (affluence+influenza), while others are beset with anticipointment (anticipation+disappointment), and both may end up as chocoholics (or workaholics)!? (There is even a word for !?–interrobang (interrogative+bang).

If we stop and think about the words that we use and see every day we would be surprised to find how many of these are Portmanteau words. And while we imagine that we are so trendy to be coining words like BREXIT, and yes, even BLOG, let us remember that Humpty Dumpty thought of it first in 1871!

–Mamata

Old Wine in New Bottles

In recent days the life and style sections of the newspapers are carrying numerous articles with titles like 10 Beauty Hacks to Make you Glow, Be the Best Hostess With These 20 Useful Party Hacks; 15 Kitchen Hacks to Save Time; Have a Sparkling Diwali With These Simple Hacks…

I was intrigued by this oft-used word Hack. My vocabulary dates back to days before even Computer Hackers became news. The only meaning of Hack that I could recall related to the act of roughly chopping down a tree or, as we read in novels, a word used to refer to a slogging journalist or so-so writer. How the word leant itself to beauty and parties and kitchens was a mystery to me.

Being the curious word aficionado that I am, I looked up the word Hack in the dictionary. I was surprised to find the word had many more meanings than I had imagined:

Cut away

Fix a computer programme piecemeal until it works

Significantly cut up a manuscript

Cough spasmodically

Be able to manage successfully

Kick on the shins

One who works hard at boring tasks

A mediocre and disdained writer

An old-fashioned taxi

An old and overworked horse.

This search, having significantly expanded my list of two meanings, still did not reveal what I was looking for—the links with beauty, kitchens and parties. I thought to myself “What the Hack”!

And then Eureka—I came upon the word Life Hacks! And I discovered…

Life hack (or life hacking) refers to any trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method that increases productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life.

It is a tool or technique that makes some aspect of one’s life easier or more efficient.

Aha thought I,  at last!

Then came the more amusing part. I discovered that there are so many websites offering innumerable Life Hacks for everything from how to get up in the morning, to how to carry out some of the most basic functions of life and living—from the sublime to the absurd! For example: ‘Do a 20 minute good workout in the morning and you can be lazy the whole day without feeling guilty!’ OR  ‘If you left home and forgot to brush your teeth or you ran out of toothpaste, chewing an apple can help with bad breath.’

I am sure one could come across some handy tips, but thinking back a bit…

Were these nifty suggestions not too long ago shared widely as DIY TIPS!

Baking soda and hot water to clean drains; a face pack of honey, cream and turmeric for that glowing skin…where did I hear those before? From mothers and aunts, of course. And magazines carried them under the title Grandmother’s Secrets!

I certainly spent an amusing hour browsing the many sites, and along the way I also found what I think is the best way to describe this term: A life hack is a colloquial term for common sense that makes people feel good about their basic creativity, or lack thereof. Typically life hacks are not all that helpful, they are simply advertised well so as to provide a false sense of improvement in the user’s day-to-day operation.

Well well well. What a great way of repackaging tried and tested ‘do-it-yourself’ ideas. Why go to Granny when Youtube will show you how!

–Mamata

In a Word

When we were in school we were told that the Eskimos have a hundred or more words for Snow and forest-dwelling indigenous people have a multitude of words for Green. In recent years this information has been debunked by many linguists. While the numbers are not that important, to my mind this example is still meaningful as it draws attention to the fact that every culture and language has its own vocabulary to describe the nuances of a phenomenon or event or feeling.

In the past few years I have come across some really evocative words which I love to share.

Tsundoku A Japanese word which refers to the habit of accumulating books with the intention of reading them by and by, as opposed to obsessively collecting books just for the sake of having them. This word apparently has been used for over a century, and a person with a large collection of unread books was called a tsundoku sensei. This is something I have always done, and I was so happy to find a respectable name for the same!

Komorebi Another Japanese word for the delicate interplay of light and leaves when sunlight filters through the foliage of trees. How often we have been touched by this delicate and fleeting moment. Artists and photographers have tried to capture this, but this single word perfectly paints the picture.

Shinrin-yoku If you want to prolong the moment and immerse yourself in the experience—the Japanese have a word for that too. This word means ‘forest bathing’, a practice that includes mindfully experiencing the beauty of the komorebi while breathing the cool fresh air and hearing the leaves rustle in the gentle breeze.

Waldeinsamkeit If you were German and enjoying Shirin-yoku, a feeling of solitude, and a connectedness to nature, this is the perfect word to describe how you feel!

Mångata If you lingered long enough for the sunlight to be replaced by moonlight, this is what you would also see. A Swedish word for the glimmering, road-like reflection that the moon creates on water. Another luminescent word that paints a perfect picture.

Hygge Back home after a rejuvenating walk in the woods, what could be better that to curl up with a book from your tsundoku and get lost in the wonderful world of words! The Swedish have the perfect word for just such cosy comfort and contentment!

If only, we may say, our life could be a series of shinrin-yoku and hygge! The Japanese say that there is no reason why it cannot be. After all, is it not a lot about how you approach life? It is all about having a sense of purpose and meaning and a feeling of wellbeing–essentially ‘a reason to get up in the morning’, and to see the sunlight rather the clouds. They call it Ikigai.

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According to the Japanese, everyone has an ikigai. We just have to find our own.

–Mamata

A Parliament of Owls

No this does not refer to a House of sleep-deprived MPs at an all-night Parliament debate!

This is what a group of Owls can be called!

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The English language has some wild and wonderful names to describe groups of animals or birds. We use some of these collective nouns occasionally when we talk about a Herd of cattle or a Flock of sheep. In school we often had to fill in the blanks or match the following– a Pride of lions, a School of fish or a Pack of wolves.

I have always been intrigued and fascinated by some of these collective nouns. I think that a Gaggle of Geese sounds just so appropriate, as does an Army of Ants (especially having once been literally attacked and badly bitten a marching regiment of army ants—no joking!).

Here are some delightful feathery ones!

Imagine a Parliament of Owls which includes members from the following: A Murder of Crows, a Convocation of Eagles, a Deceit of Lapwings, a Ballet of Swans, a Siege of Cranes, a Conspiracy of Ravens, a Company of Parrots, a Murmuration of Starlings and a Flamboyance of Flamingos!

And what about our four-legged friends? Here are some quirky ones!

When Noah invited representatives of all animals onto his Ark, he had to select a pair each from: An Ambush of Tigers, an Array of Hedgehogs, a Bloat of Hippos, a Crash of Rhinos, a Rumpus of Baboons, a Shrewdness of Apes, a Singular of Boar, a Skulk of Foxes, a Sleuth of Bears and a Mob of Kangaroos!

Not to mention the hoppers and slitherers from a Colony of Frogs, a Knot of Toads, a Quiver of Cobras, a Bask of Crocodiles, and even a Culture of Bacteria!

These are only a small taste of the numerous terms used to describe groups of different kinds, the history of which can be traced back to the Middle Ages in England. The earliest known collection of terms of collective nouns or ‘venery’ (an archaic term for ‘hunting’) is in the Book of Saint Albans, a kind of handbook for hunters first published in 1486. Included among chapters was a list of the Compaynys of Beestys and Fowlys, where many of the common terms of venery made their first appearances including pride of lions, flock of sheep and herd of deer.

While serious scientists may not be amused at the attribution of human traits to describe the animal world, for the language lovers, discovering new terms can be great fun.

Even more fun is trying to coin one’s own terms! Here are some that I thought of: A Cacophony of Koels, a Preening of Peacocks, a Menace of Mosquitoes, and a Buzzload of Bumblebees!

–Mamata

 

 

Crossed Digits

“Digits crossed!” is an expression that my friends and I use when we are hoping for things to turn out well—with double the power of “fingers crossed!” Yes, we hope to ensure this by metaphorically crossing not just the fingers, but also the toes.

In today’s ‘digital age’ where the digit-related terms  are so commonly used—digitization, digital camera, digital natives, digital divide, digital detox….we relate the word only to numbers. We seem to have forgotten that the word’s anatomical meaning. The word digit has its roots in the Latin root word digitus which means “finger or toe,” and English borrowed from this to mean “number.”

In fact, the practice of calling numbers digits comes from the digits on the hands — specifically, the habit of counting to ten on one’s fingers.

The digit in this sense was also a unit of measurement, long ago when  people used their hands and arms for measuring things. The width of a first finger was called a digit. This was used to measure things. The width of a palm was called a hand breadth. The width of an outstretched hand was called a span. The distance between an elbow and the tip of the longest finger was called a cubit.

The Egyptians had a standard length from the elbow to the middle fingertip, a distance of about 45-50 cm which they called a cubit. The width of the hand or four fingers was called a palm or hand and was about 9-10 cm. Hands is still used for measuring horses.

The ancient fathom was the distance between the outstretched arms about 1.8 metres. It is still used for measuring depth at sea.

The foot may have come from an ancient Babylonian brick measurement but in fact it works out to the approximate length of a man’s foot about 30 cm. The finger became an inch, which the Roman’s made one-twelfth of a foot.

In this digital age, if you want to sound smart, you can refer to your finger, thumb, or toe as a digit!

If you want to sound smarter still, go digital in Latin!

Here’s what they are called:

Thumb Pollex

Index finger  (pointer finger, fore finger) Digitus Secundus Manus

Middle finger Digitus Medius Manus

Ring finger Digitus Annularis Manus

Pinky ( little finger) Digitus Minimus Manus

And keep your digits crossed!

–Mamata

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source: Google

What Say You?

When I lived in Kenya, and learnt a little bit of Kiswahili, it was great fun to discover curious words or phrases. One of the best ones was to the local word for curd/yogurt. This was called Mazeevaa Lala—literally “sleeping milk!”

I was reminded of this recently when I chanced upon a Maltese saying My eye went with me, to mean that you have fallen asleep, as not taking your eyes with you would result in a sleepless night!

This is one of the many sayings in a delightful book titled Speaking in Tongues: curious expressions from around the world–a compilation of proverbs, idioms and sayings from different languages of the world, put together by Ella Frances Sanders. What brings the words alive are the accompanying illustrations, also by Ella who describes herself as “a writer out of necessity and an illustrator by accident.”

IMG_20180725_181146775.jpgFrom Finnish to Igbo, Armenian to Yiddish, each double spread presents delectable sayings and drawings that blend the wit and wisdom of the ages while also placing these in their cultural context.

Cannot resist sharing some:

Even the monkeys fall from trees. This well-known Japanese saying reminds that even the best and the cleverest can still make mistakes, and cautioning to keep overconfidence in check!  Perhaps the recent World Cup surprises where the superheroes fell from grace is an apt analogy!

You are my orange half. A Spanish term of endearment that means that someone is your soulmate or love of your life. Not quite sure what is so endearing about an orange, but reminded of the Amul chocolate ads that urged us to “Share it with someone you love!”

Horse horse Tiger tiger. To describe something that is so-so, or neither here nor there. This is a Mandarin expression; its origin lies in a story about a painter who painted a half tiger half horse but nobody bought it as it was neither one nor the other.

To pull someone out of their watermelons. A Romanian idiom that means to drive someone crazy! Not much light on why being in or out of watermelons can be harmful to mental health!

Stop ironing my head. An Armenian way of saying “Stop bugging me!” Popularly used when someone keeps asking irritating questions and won’t leave you alone. In many Indian languages we have our own equivalents in the form of “Don’t eat my head.”

To give a green answer to a blue question. A Tibetan reference to when the answer is completely unrelated to the question asked. Something that people in politics are adept at!

This is just a sampler of the 52 proverbs, expressions and idioms that have been passed on from one generation to another in diverse cultures. Interestingly, they reflect not just diversity, but also the sameness as it were. As I read I immediately thought of similar ones in Hindi and Gujarati, as will surely be the case in all languages. Remember how we had to memorise proverbs in our language subjects in school and what a pain it was? Maybe it is time to revisit these!

A perfect one to end with. To have a head full of crickets. 

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How the Spanish describe a mind buzzing with crazy, wonderful ideas, whims, and flights of fantasy…(what some would call nonsense!)

Nicely sums up how I often feel!

–Mamata

Word Play

I am a logophile. Before you leap to dangerous conclusions, let me explain! I am a lover of words! Words fascinate me, excite me, and intrigue me—the sound of words, the use of words, and the play with words. While I run scared from attempting a Sudoku puzzle (I guess that makes me Numerophobic or Arithmophobic!) I cannot resist any kind of word game or puzzle. Scrabble is the only board game I enjoy. I feel insecure without the presence of my faithful dictionaries on my table, even when I can Google up a word with a single click.  I enjoy the act of turning the pages to find the word I am looking for and, in the process, discover at least a few new ones while browsing.

Perhaps the first word that got me hooked was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from the film Mary Poppins. It sounded as wonderful as it meant. It took many hours to learn how to say this, and much longer to even dare to spell it out! Though an invented word, it later found its legitimacy in the Oxford English Dictionary. But it could not lay claim to being the longest word in the English language, the title of which is claimed by—take a deep breath—pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis! (a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust.)

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Source: Google

Over the years I have been noting down interesting words and word-related things.

Sharing some fun and games with words!

Palindrome

These are words or phrases that read the same in both directions. According to language experts palindromes are the most difficult kind of phrase to create.

The best known example: Madam I’m Adam.

An interesting one: A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama.

And a very clever one!

Doc, note, I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.

Lipogram

This is a literary work in which one or more letters of the alphabet are excluded. The term lipogram comes from the ancient Greek leipográmmatos, which means ‘leaving out a letter of the alphabet’.

As far back as the 3rd century BC, Greek poet Tryphiodorus wrote an epic of 24 books, each one omitting one letter of the alphabet.

One of the most famous lipograms of more recent times (1939) is a 50,000 word novel called Gadsby. The author Ernest Vincent Wright makes no use of the most frequently used letter of the English alphabet—E.

A tiny extract illustrates how: ‘Upon this basis I am going to show you how a bunch of bright young folks did find a champion: a man with boys and girls of his own; a man so dominating and happy as individuality that youth is drawn to him as is a fly to a sugar bowl.’

From selective exclusion to all-inclusion—that is the Pangram!  This is a short sentence containing all 26 letters of the English alphabet. All the worthies who learnt touch typing on a manual typewriter will be glad to learn that the one sentence they pounded out, in endless practice, is the most famous Pangram: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Cheers to all fellow logophiliacs, wordaholics, word fanatics, word nuts, logolepts, verbivores and, the even nobler, epeolatrists (worshipper of words).

May our tribe increase!

–Mamata