Category Archives: Mind your language

What’s the story behind the word…..?

We are all too familiar with the story behind the expression ‘Achilles Heel’.

To refresh your minds, according to Greek mythology, Achilles’ mother held him by the heels to dip him into the River Styx when he was an infant to make him invincible …. The water washed all over his body, all but his heels where his mother held him, thus making the area vulnerable. That was a big ‘boo boo’ alright. He was supposedly killed by a poisoned arrow shot into his heel by Paris. 

Today the expression Achilles’ Heel” refers to someone’s singular weakness that could bring about his downfall.

More interesting stories below….

Blind Justice meaning : .impartiality…… i.e. ‘justice is blind..’

– NO, it is not to denote that justice is so blind that it convicts the innocent. But, Justice, in Greek status, is personified as a female and she is blindfolded so that she cannot see the bribes that are being offered to her. Make no mistake, she is blind but not deaf, o.k? If not she would not be able to hear the cases presented to her……

Kick the bucket meaning – die

There are many theories to this expression but the most popular one alludes to the act of committing suicide by hanging. You see, in order to hang oneself, you need to tie a rope to a beam or an overhead post which is placed high up. To reach it, you have to stand on a bucket or something. After the rope has been put in place, the victim then has to kick the bucket for the suicide to happen….

Love meaning – zero in the scoring system for tennis

How on earth did this word which is universally known as an affection come to mean ‘zero’ in tennis? Well, the term comes from the french word ‘l’oeuf’, meaning ‘egg’. The French use it to designate ‘no score’ or ‘zero’ because an egg looks like a zero.

Moron derogatory word, slang – meaning – someone who is not so intelligent ….

The term is derived from the Greek word ‘moros’ which means dull. This word was arbitratily given to adults with the mental ages of eight to twelve year olds by Dr. Henry H. Goddard (see pic). He decided to split these individuals into 3 IQ levels ‘s and he was looking for a word to describe the highest group …. and he chose ‘moron’ …..

  • Moron : an IQ of 51-70, being superior in one degree to
  • “imbecile” (IQ of 26-50) and superior in two degrees to
  • “idiot” (IQ of 0-25). 

Take note however it was only  a valid descriptor in the psychological community in the early 1900’s. They are not longer applied as Goddard recanted his earlier theory starting from the 1920’s. However, these words have all now passed into common slang use only.

Quarantine – meaning – put into isolation to prevent spread of disease 

This word comes from the Italian word quaranta, meaning ‘forty’. In early days, a ship suspected of being infected with some contagious disease was kept outside of port for forty days hence the birth of the word “quarantine”.

Raining cats & dogs – meaning – heavy rain storm

This expression comes from Norse mythology – in which the cat symbolizes heavy rain, while the dog, an attendant of Odin, the storm god, represents great blasts of wind. It is befitting to use the cat and dog to symbolise the conflicting elements in a storm given the proverbial enmity of cats and dogs.

Red Tape – meaning – Govt delay

This expression comes literally with the use of ‘red tape’ in tying up official papers in Engliand. For centuries, British Government  officials would follow the time consuming custom of tying and untying red tape which bound the dispatch and document cases which inevitably results in unnecessary delay. Apparently, the practice continues, but the tape is now pink. Oh, cut the red tape will you, ..or should I say ‘pink’ tape?

Sabotage – meaning – a deliberate act to destroy or to hinder something

Believe it or not it comes the French word ‘sabot’ for wooden shoe. There are several theories to explain how the the word came to be. One being, during the railway strike of 1910, when workers destroyed the wooden shoes, or sabots, that held rails in place, thus impeding the morning commute.  An alternate definition, if true, would make the origin of the word older by almost a century, i.e. the times of the Industrial Revolution. It is said that powered looms i.e. weaving machines were damaged by angry or disgruntled workers throwing their wooden shoes into the machinery to clog it. This etymology however, is highly suspect and no wooden shoe sabotage is known to have been reported at the time of origin for the word ……………. Whatever it is, a shoe played the lead role all the way for this word, a wooden one at that!!!

Sack i.e.  ‘get the sack’, meaning – terminated from work 

In the olden days, most tradespeople like artisans and mechanics lived on the job. They brought their own tools to work with them in a ‘sack’.  So when the employer wants them discharged, he would probably give him the sack, a broad hint for the workman to pack up his tools and leave. 

TIP meaning – a little something i.e. money, given as a token of appreciation to people working in the service industry.

This is a good one….. Years ago in English inns and taverns, it was customary for the patrons to drop a coin for the benefit of the waiters into a box placed on the wall. On the box was a little sign which said: To Insure Promptness hence the birth of the word tip!

Well, so many more words, so many stories of origin….. some historical, some borrowed from other languages like Latin, Greek, French……some funny. 

Who said learning English wasn’t fun, eh?

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….of bulls and bears….

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………..17 pairs of eyes were staring back at me blankly……………..!

This was the response I got when I was asking a Business English class, if they knew how a rising stock market came to be called bullish’ and a falling stock market, bearish’? “Oh come on, … you mean you don’t even have a theory?”.  More blank stares. Sigh… I guess young city slickers of today really don’t have much opportunity to commune with real life bulls or bears to have any inkling how they lived or even moved for the matter …. O.K. Forgiven!

Let me tell you why……… 

It’s all smiles in a BULLISH  stock market! Money in the pocket. The financial indices are moving up, up and away. Stock prices are rising. So – what has the BULL, who’s probably stuck in a farm or a field somewhere,  got to do with this whole fiasco. Way out of its element, no? Well it alludes to the way a BULL attacks – you see, the bull heaves its horned head upwards when it is attacking….  So, rising head vs. rising stock markets … now, do you get it?

As for the BEAR, well it attacks by lunging downwards…  hence you have a BEARISH market where plunging indices and dipping stock prices are the order of the day.

Check this video out before you read any further! A good demonstration of how a bear attacks ….. you really wouldn’t want to miss it …..   

AHAHAAAHHHH – Sorry for being corny, I couldn’t resist it! OK, so I’m a city slicker too. Don’t take my word for it, go watch the National Geographic channel or something 🙂

Before we move on, let me digress a bit into the use of bull in the English Language! Did you know that …….. the word bulldoze (which implies the idea of pushing others around) was originally written as ‘bulldose. This means that you apply a good dose of whipping sufficient to get even a bull moving which gave birth to the modern version of “bulldozing your way through to get things done ….”  And if you bully someone, it really suggests that you’re overbearing like the bull and you bellow’ like one too. In other words, you’re just plain mean’.  Has anyone described you as being ‘bull-headed’?  Sorry, I can’t help you there, you’re probably downright stubborn. Lastly, I shouldn’t even go into the use of the word which involves the faeces of the bull which represents an extremely vulgar expletive … especially when someone expresses displeasure at hearing you talk nonsense.  As you can see, the status of the word BULL in the English Language is not as elevated as its cousin’s use in the financial markets.  Well, you can’t win ’em all.

Ok, back to the financials – you might come across people saying that a trader who sells stocks short is called a ‘bear’. They are called thus because essentially they are selling stocks without having them, in the hope that the price will go down and he can purchase what he needs for delivery at a lower cost. And so the old Western folk saying still applies to him: “He sold the skin before he got the bear.”

Well folks, that’s my two sen worth with regards to the use of bulls and the bears in Business and everyday English. Thank you for ‘bearing’ with me through this blog…and NO, this time the word does not allude to the poor animal at all….

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A short take on your spelling blues…

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Did you know there are two letters in the alphabet which cause a lot of confusion in the spelling of certain words in the Business English? How many times have you come across emails, documents, letters which makes use of the words advice & advise in the wrong application? or even practice & practise? Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you, but, you’ve really got to mind your C’s & S’s ……………….

Let’s analyse two sentences to see how advice and advise is used differently:

  1. Your advice is for him to leave?
  2. You advised him to leave? 

WHY, did I spell it with a  ‘c’ in the first sentence but with an ‘s’ in the second sentence………? 

You see, when you write “Your advice is for him to leave?”, ‘advice’  here is a NOUN, so you spell it with a C. A noun is a name  word and in this case it is the name given for the product/outcome of this particular action. It does not denote the act of advising itself. Do pay attention to the use of the possessive pronoun ‘your’ before the noun! A name word even if it is in abstract terms, like a piece of advice, is something that you can possess or take ownership, just like an object. (That’s an important clue.)

When you write “You advised him to leave?”, the word ‘advised’ is spelt with an S because the word here is a VERB. In other words, the verb represents the action itself i.e. the act of doing it. A verb would probably answer to the question… “What did he/she/I do?”. Note the use of a pronoun ‘you’ before the verb. (Another important clue.)

To put it in a nutshell,

NAME words (spell with a C)

ACTION words (spell with an S)

Follow these 4 easy steps and your spelling blues should be over … (I hope….)

Step 1.

Determine whether the word is a NOUN (name word)  or a VERB (action word)

Step 2. 

Look out for CLUES if you’re not sure ………

A) PRONOUN CLUES

i) POSSESSIVE PRONOUNS like ‘my’, ‘your’, ‘her’, ‘his’, ‘their’, etc should be followed by a NOUN.        

Eg. My advice …., Your advice ….

ii) PRONOUNS like ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’, etc should be followed by a VERB.        

Eg. I advised ….., You advised …..

B) WORD CLUES  like ‘the’, ‘some’, ‘any’  should be followed by a NOUN.

Eg. “The advice you gave me was very useful.”

Eg. “Can you give me some advice?”

Eg. “Do you have any advice for me?”

C) PEOPLE / GROUP OF PEOPLE CLUES i.e. Tom, Sara, The Board of Directors should be followed by a VERB

Eg. Tom advised us to keep calm

Eg. Sara is advising the interns on proper office attire.

Eg. The Board of Directors has been advising us to consider a different move.

D) PEOPLE in POSSESSIVE CASE as denoted by the apostrophe S (’s) should be followed by a NOUN

Eg. Tom’s advice, Sara’s advice, The Board of Director’s advice, etc

Step 3.

Use your COMMON SENSE if you’re still not sure, in the absence of Step 2 clues! (For eg. ‘advice slip’ – obviously is a name word because it is the name for the type of form)

Step 4.

By now you would have an idea if the word is a NOUN or a VERB so you can start SPELLING correctly!

Do try to apply these basic steps (especially Step 2 clues)  when you encounter problems and you should be on the right spelling track. OK, given the worst case scenario, you can always depend on the spell check – Oh but then…., you would have to mind your Z’s & S’s for eg. analyze or analyse. Ahahahahahhhh!!!!!! ………. That’s because the American and British spelling systems differ in some areas … ….

But, that merits another blog altogether! Good luck spelling bees 🙂

p.s. Maybe it is not such a short take after all, but it is very important to have a good handle of basic grammatical rules  especially if you are having difficulty understanding the concept of a NOUN and a VERB. There is no short cut to this! You probably need to get a good reference book to help you build this foundation.

I personally use “A Practical English Grammar” by A.J. Thomson & A.V. Martinet. The material is relevant and well laid out in point forms. You can get it in the English Language section of any major bookstore in KL…. or just browse through the section for other Grammar or Business English books which might suit you better.   

It’s a RATTY year ahead………..!

It never ceases to amaze me how different the perceptions of the East & the West are……& in this case, the stark contrast in the interpretation of the RAT ……..

According to the Chinese Zodiac, this is the Year of the Rat (after Feb 7, 2008). Surprisingly, this small animal is associated with hard work, courage, enterprise & even romance. In fact, ancient Chinese would not be caught dead going on board a ship or living in a town that was devoid of rats! It was considered a very bad omen … (common logic, I say – since nature has its own way of sensing catastrophes or troubles).  Given that the RAT is the first animal in a cycle of 12 Zodiac Animals, it also signifies new opportunities & a period of renewal for the Chinese.

In the West however, the RAT is perceived in a rather different manner. Just flip into any dictionary (in my case Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language) & you might find the RAT is portrayed in a less than complimentary light……

In slang, if you called someone “You RAT!” – you could be referring to him / her as a scoundrel; or even an informer depending on what context you choose. Worse still, he could be someone who betrayed you, your party or your associates especially in times of trouble.  Alternately, you could use it as a verb to colour your speech  i.e. “He ratted on you!” meaning he squealed on you or he betrayed you or use it as an exclamation “Oh, RATS!” to express a certain degree of displeasure….  

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….Needless to say, when you “smell  a rat….” you really mean to say you suspect or surmise a treachery….  And in this modern age that we are said to be so caught up in a “rat race” chasing riches & wealth that it’d come as no surprise if you end up ‘ratty’ i.e. irritable or snappish!  …….  

Clearly, the ‘rat’ is not quite so glorified in the West as it is in the East……. after all, the Western Zodiac does not even have room for the “long tailed rodents of the family Muridae, of the genus Rattus and related genera, distinguished from the mouse by being larger”!  Rats even end up getting lured to the river to be killed in fairy tales i.e. the Pied Piper & we haven’t even started to touch on the role of the rat in diseases such as the Plague.

But, the East might have its way after all, as Hollywood’s been promoting a cutesy image for the RAT with the onset of films like Ratatouille in which the ‘leading’ rat is portrayed to be adorable, smart & possessing a talent for cooking it seems. Not forgetting Little Stuart & MICKEY too …. but then again, they’re MICE  … aren’t they? Did you also know that in Russia there is a surge in RAT sales for pet shops there? All thanks to the popularity of Chinese Astrology amongst some Russians. That’s all good, as long as these people don’t throw the rats out in the streets after the novelty wears off. Or else….you might just end up having a huge RATTY problem. …… after all the RAT represents fertility to the Orientals too, no? Well, at least the PEST CONTROL people will come out winners in this!

HAPPY RAT YEAR everyone!!!!!

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Of Little Red Riding Hoods & Big Bad Wolves….

image-of-question-mark.jpg Have you ever wondered when you were a kid, why “Little Red Riding Hood” was never called “Riding Red Little Hood”? Why the “Big Bad Wolf” was never called “Bad Big Wolf”………………….??????

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Well there’s a reason to this!  ……….Words like ‘little’, ‘red’, ‘riding’, ‘big’, ‘bad’ are all adjectives. Meaning, they are descriptive words that give you more information about what hood the girl was wearing & what type of wolf  was out to get her in the story……

Did you know that when you use multiple adjectives together, they really are not put together randomly but that they come in a particular order as prescribed by  grammatical rules in the English Language…..?

Let’s look at the different categories of adjectives:

  • cool, beautiful, ugly, etc = Opinion
  • large, small, tiny, hug, etc = Size
  • new, old, etc = Age
  • red, blue, green, etc = Colour
  • Italian, American, English, etc = Nationality
  • leather, synthetic, etc = Type

The rule of thumb is that an Opinion adjective comes first, followed by a Size adjective, Age adjective, Colour adjective, Nationality & then only the Type adjective. So to answer the earlier question about Little Red Riding Hood, that’s why its described in this particular order:

LITTLE (size), RED (colour),  RIDING (type) HOOD 

&

BIG (size), BAD (type) WOLF

Do be careful though, some words like ‘good’ & ‘bad’ can be opinion adjectives or type adjectives depending on context i.e. ‘Big Bad Wolf (Bad = here is Type hence it comes last) vs. Good Old Days (Good = Opinion, hence it comes first)

To help you remember the order, think of the first letters of the types of adjectives as a new massage chair brand like OSIM or OGAWA – it would be named OSACONT! So if you have a new bag, you would describe it as follows in perfect OSACONT order & not any other way 

I’ve got a cool, large, newred, Italian, leather bag

COOL, DON’T YOU AGREE?