English is the most common first, or native, language spoken in Britain. Nothing surprising there. The second most common first language spoken in Britain is Polish. What that sentence means is that there is a very large number of people in Britain for whom Polish is the native language; it’s an even larger group than those with Urdu, Hindi, or other widely spoken languages.
A number of maps on this page looks at ‘second most common first languages’ in various countries across the world. English comes top of the list, with people speaking it as their native language in 55 countries. France is in second place – it’s the second most common first language in 14 countries, and Russian is in third place (13 countries). Then come Spanish (8), Creole (8), Arabic (6), Kurdish (4), Portuguese (4), Italian (3) and Quechua (3).
See the maps, the languages, and the language groups on this page.
The word sabotage entered English at the beginning of the early 20th century. A sabot is a wooden shoe - once worn by peasants and workers, leather being expensive - and this became the verb saboter in French, which first had the sense 'to walk noisily in wooden shoes' and then came to be used figuratively to mean to perform badly or bungle, or to destroy wilfully.
The word sabotage gained currency during the First World War due to actions taken against the enemy, although the first citation in the OED, from a 1910 Church Times article, refers to industrial sabotage: 'We have lately been busy in deploring the sabotage of the French railway strikers'.
Various colourful suggestions have been made regarding the relevance of wooden shoes to strikers' tactics, such as the idea of clog-wearing peasants trampling down their landowners' crops, or industrial workers throwing their shoes into machinery to disable it, but, as Wilfred Funk says in his 1950 Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories 'this interpretation seems rather more romantic than defensible'.
You’ve probably heard the term glass ceiling. A more recent term – and phenomenon – is the glass cliff. It refers to the situation that women find themselves in when they have broken through the glass ceiling. They can then find that they are in a precarious position, at risk of ‘falling off the cliff’.
A study by researchers at Utah State University found that women CEOs were often appointed in times of crisis. It may well be that men refused the job because of the perceived risk. The study found that the term of such female CEOs is typically shorter, and then they find themselves more often than not replaced by white males. Examples include Patricia Russo, former CEO of Lucent Technologies, who led the company through three consecutive years of negative shareholder returns before the board hired Ben Verwaayen. Marissa Mayer’s appointment at Yahoo is another example often cited.
The topic is discussed in this recent Guardian article.
The word schedule is interesting on several counts. First, the pronunciation. In Britain the usual pronunciation is 'shed-ule', whereas in American English it's 'sked-ule'. The word, rarely referring to something on paper these days, is a diminutive of the Latin sceda, papyrus leaf (it could also be written scheda in medieval Latin). Schedule has been the accepted spelling since the mid-17th century. The original pronunciation was sed-ule; this pronunciation is rare these days. The reason for the differences in pronunciation is because the 'shed-ule' spelling shows the influence of French in British English, whilst 'sked-ule' is a nod to the Greek origin of the word. The original definition of schedule (late 14th century; OED) is: 'A slip or scroll of parchment or paper containing writing; a ticket, label, placard; a short note'. Shortly afterwards the meaning widened to 'In wider sense, any tabular or classified statement, esp. one arranged under headings prescribed by official authority, as, e.g. an insolvent's statement of assets and liabilities, a return of particulars liable to income or other tax, and the like. Also occas. a blank form to be filled up by the insertion of particulars under the several headings' (OED). This meaning is still used today when we talk of UK Income Tax Schedules A and D (Schedules B, C, E and F have been abolished) - meaning the tax return forms we need to fill in. The current meaning of schedule - timetable - only came about in the mid-19th century.
I recently bought an iPad, and various people have been recommending apps to me. One of the most popular is Shazam. Funnily enough, I heard the word shazam during Andrew Marr's programme on Sir Walter Scott, which I blogged on recently (here). Marr said 'the full shazam' when talking about the Edinburgh monument to Robert Burns, which isn't quite as ornate as the one to Sir Walter Scott, or isn't 'the full shazam'. This is a Marr-ism; it's not a common English idiom (Andrew Marr is Scottish).
The OED says that shazam is a children's slang word, an invented word like ‘abracadabra’ or ‘presto’ to introduce an extraordinary deed or story. The word did not feature in Stephen Fry's programme on the language of magic, the subject of my previous post, but I suppose it has the same exotic qualities - unlike any other English word and containing a Z, one of the rarest letters in English. Shazam was originally the wizard's name in the Captain Marvel superhero stories (and Captain Marvel's alter ego? - I'm finding the information I read on this very confusing, so apologies if I've got the facts wrong). Supposedly, Shazam is an acronym, made up of the initials of the six powerful mythological figures Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.
Svengali, Houdini, the Great Soprendo - even magicians' names sound magical and mysterious. An episode from the recent radio series Fry's English Delight (listen here - you've got another year to do so) looked at the language of magic, and at magical language.
The Harvard linguist Steven Pinker talked about how, if we are in earshot of words, we cannot help processing what we hear. So, words are very powerful in that sense, and could be seen themselves as a kind of magic. Words associated with magic, for instance abracadabra and hocus-pocus, are often nonsense words, often contain repetition of the same sound, or reduplication, and are designed to sound other-worldly.
We heard a recording of the occultist Aleister Crowley speaking Enochian, and heard the writer Philip Pullman saying how he was transfixed at school by his teacher reciting Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. We were allowed to hear one or two expressions from the secret language of magicians, but the magician on the programme refused to explain what they actually meant - if he had done so, he would have been thrown out of the Magic Circle.
Devo max must surely be one of the contenders for Word of the Year. I forgot to mention it in my recent post on words related to the Scottish Independence Referendum, but I have heard it a lot since then.
Devo max is short for devolution max (and I suppose that max in itself is short for maximum). Devo max refers to increasing Scotland's autonomy, but falls short of full independence. Wikipedia gives several synonyms: full fiscal autonomy, fiscal federalism, independence lite, and independence minus. None of those variants are quite as snappy as devo max. In a 2012 article on the BBC website Michael Buchanan compares devo max to 'fat-free independence', or "the powers of a separate nation without the need for military chiefs, diplomats and expensive embassies".
If devo max doesn't win Word of the Year, then maybe adorkable will. Adorkable is defined in Collins Dictionary as ‘socially inept or unfashionable in a charming or endearing way’.
I am leaving later today for a two-week trip to Perm in Russia. Perm is just west of the Ural mountains, about 900 miles east of Moscow. No doubt I will have plenty to write about when I return. While I am away posts will continue - I have written some non-topical posts, which will appear every two or three days. Apologies if I don't respond to comments over the next two weeks.
An article in the Daily Telegraph came up with 14 words used to describe only, or mainly, women. Commentators on the article have come up with more words. Even if the dictionary definition does not specifically refer to just one gender, the examples that the dictionary comes up with often do.
The words include feisty (which I have blogged on before - here), bossy, abrasive, bitchy, ditsy, airhead, frumpy, sassy and high-maintenance. Most of those words, you will have noticed, are negative, or used in a negative or critical sense. One more positive word used to describe a lively pleasant personality is bubby. Men can have lively pleasant personalities, too, but are rarely described as bubbly.
Here's the full article.
The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, begun over 100 years ago, has just been completed - the final word zythum, a type of fermented malt drink, has just been added. Oxford historian Robert Whitwell, whose aim was to publish the medieval Latin equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary, began the project in 1913. Before now, scholars looking at British source documents had to rely on a reference book first published in the 17th century.
All dictionaries supply far more information than simply definitions or translations, and this one is no exception. It gives a picture of life in the medieval era. For instance, the entry for muzzle makes reference to a muzzle being made for a polar bear that was kept in the Tower of London; the animal had to be restrained when it was brought to fish in the river Thames. A record from a coroner's court refers to a woman who died when she fell down a well chasing her cat, which was chasing a mouse.
The dictionary, published by the British Academy, runs to 17 volumes. For more on the story, see this BBC piece.