Learn British English with Anastassia

Exciting Adventures in the English Language and Culture

Tag: etymology

Enfant terrible: more than just an ill-mannered child

Last weekend my husband and I went to the supermarket to do our weekly shopping and witnessed yet another unasked for and very unwelcome performance by a badly-mannered child, whose typical reaction to not getting what he/she wants is to throw tantrums.

Image by gfergu1 from Pixabay

You could call a kid that embarrasses his elders a terrible child, or you could use the French expression enfant terrible /ˌɒnfɒn teˈriːblə/ instead.

When the term first arrived in English in the mid-19th century, it was used to refer to unpredictable children who blurted out outrageous remarks that embarrassed their elders. By the 1930s, an enfant terrible could be anyone – regardless of their age – whose unconventional or shocking behaviour scandalised mainstream society.

Since his debut in the 1970s, he’s been the enfant terrible of British pop music.

These days the phrase is also often applied to young, successful newcomers who shock or scare old-timers with their new approaches, easy successes, or disregard for tradition.

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On the grapevine

On 24 May 1844 Samuel Morse presented his new invention – telegraph – to congressmen. To demonstrate its ability to speedily transmit information over great distances he sent a message from Washington to Baltimore.

The new means of communication met with great enthusiasm and soon telegraph lines criss-crossed the country.

Image by Conny Griebel from Pixabay

Rumour and gossip have been around for much longer than telegraph and like Morse’s invention have an almost magical capacity to spread information briskly, even if not in a straight line and often distorting the truth beyond recognition along the way. So, shortly after the historic demo, the phrase grapevine telegraph was coined. Over time, the word telegraph was dropped, but the grapevine has remained in the language, just like the social phenomenon it describes.

How do you know Sarah’s expecting a baby? – I heard it on the grapevine (i.e. someone, who heard it from someone else, told me).

Interestingly, the Russian equivalent of this phrase also features a 19th-century invention – the radio – as well as the country’s traditional pinafore dress sarafanсарафанное радио.

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Ad lib: two tiny words with a lot of meaning

Ad lib is one of my favourite borrowings, as it says in just two tiny words what English needs a whole sentence to express.

Ad lib (also ad-lib) derives from the Latin ad libitum, meaning ‘to (one’s) pleasure, as much as one likes’, and was originally used to indicate the points within a piece of sheet music or theatrical script where performers could exercise unrestrained freedom of self-expression.

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

Now we use this phrase as a synonym of the verb improvise, that is to mean ‘to speak or perform in public without preparation’.

I had to ad-lib as I’d forgotten my lines.

He ad-libbed his way through the entire speech.

Ad lib can also act as

  • an adjective: Ann had always been much better at writing than speaking, so when asked to give an ad-lib speech she was completely paralysed with fear.
  • an adverb: He spoke ad lib.
  • and a noun: I’m sorry to say this but your ad-libs sounded anything but spontaneous.
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Pyjamas

What do you wear in bed? Do you sleep in your birthday suit (=naked) or do you prefer to have something on like a nightie (informal word for nightdress), a onesie (an all-in-one item of clothing that covers your body, arms and legs) or pyjamas?

Image by Наталья Данильченко from Pixabay

The word pyjamas derives from the Persian paijama. The original paijama are loose, lightweight trousers with draw-string waistbands worn in Asia by both men and women. In the UK, pyjamas are made up of two pieces – a pair of trousers and a top – and are worn in bed.

For British children, there are lots of pet abbreviations, among them ‘jamas’, ‘p-jays’, ‘jimmy jams’ and ‘jimmies’. They differ between families and whatever word you’re brought up with is correct and the other terms are weird.

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Derriere, or the embellished behind

Image by Nici Keil from Pixabay

How many English words for the part of your body you sit on do you know?

Well, the choices are plenty – bottom, rear (also rear end), rump, backside, buttocks, cheeks, hindquarters, bum, butt and arse (AmE ass) to name just a few.

However, my favourite is the French derrière.

If you’re proud of your derrière, show it off in these hot pants.

It arrived in the English language at the end of the 18th century as a euphemism for ‘behind’. Basically, the word ‘behind’, which already was in use to refer to the part of the body in question, was translated to derrière. How or why it happened remains unclear. Possibly, the French equivalent was thought to sound less vulgar and even kind of respectful in contrast to ‘arse’, ‘bum’ and ‘buttocks’. And so it does, don’t you think?

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Wanderlust

Image by Digital Designer from Pixabay

Do you like travelling? You probably do, but how much? Are you happy to go on a couple of holidays a year, or are you one of those who really suffer staying in one place for a few months, weeks or even days? If the latter, then there’s a perfect word to describe your urge to constantly move on – it’s wanderlust.

The English language borrowed it from German at the very start of the twentieth century. It’s a blend of two German words, meaning literally ‘desire to wander’.

How can it be used in a sentence? Here’s some examples:

Smitten by wanderlust, he quit his job, sold his house and spent the rest of his life gallivanting all over the world.

She suffers from wanderlust but has to stay at home with children.

Shortly after the Iron Curtain had been lifted, he went on a sightseeing holiday to Paris and was immediately gripped by wanderlust visiting one country after another until he died last year.

That’s a nice addition to your vocabulary, isn’t it?

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Carpe diem

Image by Faby Green from Pixabay

My first encounter with this phrase exuding energy as well as the special charm of Latin happened in 2011. Such is the title of one of the episodes of the Canadian TV series Being Erica, in which the protagonist, thanks to the superpower of time travel her therapist Dr Tom possesses, learns to enjoy the present, without worrying about the past or future.

The phrase was coined by Horace in his poem ‘Tu ne quaesieris’, published in 23 BC. The verse is addressed to a lady worrying about her future. Its closing line reads: Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero’, which translates as, ‘Seize the day, trusting tomorrow as little as possible.’

So, carpe diem/ˌkɑːpeɪ ˈdiːɛm/ – you only live today once, so don’t waste it!

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Apple: more than just a fruit

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

It’s hard to believe but until as late as the 17th century the word apple was used to refer to all fruit including nuts! Only berries escaped the apple monopoly. Thus dates were called finger-apples and cucumbers were known as earth-apples.

And the biblical forbidden fruit, which is believed by Christians and Jews to have been an apple, was possibly wheat.

The phrase apple of one’s eye has existed in the language for many centuries. Originally it referred to the pupil of the eye, which was called the apple, presumably because of its resemblance in shape to the fruit.

Sight is precious and until recently impossible to regain if lost. And so are our nearest and dearest. At some point in time someone hit upon the similarity and the phrase took on the figurative sense of the person who someone loves most we still use.

Maria is the apple of her father’s eye, his everything.

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Girl Power

Image by GraphicMama Team from Pixabay

The word girl made its arrival in the language in the early 1300s. Back then it was gender-neutral and was used to refer to kids of both sexes pretty much like the word child is today. So girls were called girls, and so were boys too!

The origin of girl remains an unsolved mystery, though a number of theories have been put forward in attempts to trace it.

About a hundred years later, at the turn of the 15th century, the word girl began to be used in its current sense. And at about the same time the word boy, which is believed to be a French borrowing, changed its original meaning servant, commoner and even scoundrel to male child.

Amazing, isn’t it?!

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The Mysterious Case of the Word ‘Ghost’

Have you ever questioned the purpose of the silent H in ‘ghost’? It’s absolutely useless, but there’s a great story behind it.

It goes back to William Caxton, an English merchant and diplomat, who lived in the 15th century. While in Germany, he became familiar with Gutenberg’s latest invention – the printing press, – and liked the idea so much that he set up one of his own in Flanders.

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