Language Monthly: May 2020, English

proud like an English lion

This May has been a busy month at work. In particular, it involved lots of writing: proposals, technical reports, and similar soulless documents.

Writing in English did not come easily to me, but after years of toiling and moiling, I began to enjoy it. I am not the smoothest writer, neither the most creative, nor the one with a flawless English prose. But I have developed some shortcuts that serve me well.

At work, when something needs to be written, I can sit down, focus, and just write it, claiming proudly better done than perfect. The expression big fish in a small pond truly applies to my English writing abilities, although I prefer a colourful Russian saying на безрыбье и рак рыба (‘when there is no fish, a crayfish would do’), roughly equivalent to better a small fish than an empty dish.

This is to say that after writing for a whole day at work, I did not have any bandwidth to write anything else after work, hence this hiatus.

Now I am back. Given that the focus of the month was English, I share three English-related discoveries I made recently.

I am a huge fan of etymology, and was excited to find a useful and reliable resource on English etymology, Online Etymology Dictionary. It publishes regular posts on language issues, for example, this one on the so-called Janus words, this one on language in a time of Corona, and this one on understanding relations between different languages by Mediaeval Europeans.

The second is also related to English etymology. It’s a website called World Wide Words, dedicated to ‘peculiarities and evolution of English language’. The website is not being updated any longer, but nearly 3000 published articles will keep the reader busy for a while!

The third discovery is an article on Farnam Street blog, about the difference between two words often treated as synonyms, although they differ in meaning, to convince and to persuade: the first applies to reason, the second to emotions.

This one will be helpful next time I have to write something where I both would need to convince and persuade.


che diffondi la luce blu

To protect against infection, washing hands is a critical gesture, and to do so properly, the washing should take as long as singing Happy Birthday twice.

I don’t like the Happy Birthday song at all.

That’s why I decided that every week I would choose one song among those I do like but have never looked up the lyrics, and would learn them by heart, to accompany my hand washing routine.

The first song is in Italian, chosen in honour of our Italian friends, although its name is French, abat-jour, from abbattre (to through down) and jour (daylight).

It is a song from the 1960s. In a film Ieri, oggi, domani (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow), it accompanies the famous sensual scene with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. 

Abat-jour che soffondi la luce blu
di lassù tu sospiri chissà perchè
Abat-jour mentre spandi la luce blu
anche tu cerchi forse chi non c’è più

In some versions of the song, the verb soffondi (you suffuse) is replaced by diffondi (you diffuse). The two verbs are related, but different: soffondere means to suffuse, to spread in a manner of light or fluid, and derives from Latin suffundere, with the etymology of spreading upon (‘sub’ ). A more common diffondere, from diffundere, means to diffuse, to spread around, away (‘dis’).

You can watch the famous spogliarello scene here.

Kaheksa, üheksa

üks, kaks …

These are not incantations, but words ‘eight’ and ‘nine’ in Estonian, a language I am learning.

While learning numbers, I had a huge difficulty remembering the words for ‘eight’ and ‘nine’: which was which?

Then it dawned on me that inside kaheksa hides kaks, ‘two’, in its form kahe, and inside üheksa hides üks, ‘one’, in its form ühe. Clearly, kaheksa (8), was constructed as ‘2 (kahe) out of 10′, and üheksa (9) as ‘1 (ühe) out of 10′.

But ‘ten’ in Estonian is kümme, where does this mysterious -ksa come from?

It took me some time and effort to find reliable sources of information, given that my Estonian is basic and I have only faded memories of Hungarian, another Finno-Ugric language on my list.

Estonian etymological dictionary gives etymology for kaheksa and üheksa, and proposes two explanations: -ksa derives from *detsa, a proto-Iranian (hence Indoeuropean) word for ten (compare word for ‘ten’ in other Indo-European languages). Alternatively, –ksa is interpreted as an old negation form.

Curiously, it is believed that seitse ‘seven’ might be a loanword from Baltic or Slavic languages, which are of the Indo-European family (compare Russian семь, Czech sedm, and Latvian septiņi), whereas numbers one to six are of of Finno-Ugric  or Uralic origin.

This heterogeneity of construction and origins of the first ten numbers is sometimes interpreted to suggest a base-6 system among ancestors of Finno-Ugric people — apparently, a heated linguistic debate.

Like a fish in water

happy as a fish in venice

Today’s post is inspired by a recent trip to Venice. A famous book Venezia è un pesce (‘Venice is a fish’) by Tiziano Scarpra compares the city to a fish, and recommends getting lost to fully enjoy it.

I did not manage to read the book before my trip, but I did manage to get lost immediately on arrival. Then, my phone kept shutting down, and a colleague mentioned he almost fell off to the water thanks to his phone recommendations. So, I ignored the phone and the map and walked, feeling, like in a French expression, comme un poisson dans l’eau, and thinking about its equivalents in different languages.

In English, an expression to be like a fish in water can be used, but its opposite, to be like a fish out of water, is more common.

In Italian, you can use both:  sentirsi come un pesce nell’acqua and its opposite come un pesce fuor d’acqua.

The same goes for Spanish: sentirse como pez en el agua and como pez fuera del agua.

In German, you say sich fühlen / sein wie ein Fisch im Wasser. You can also be jolly, fit, healthy, etc munter / fit / gesund sein wie ein Fisch im Wasser.  To express the opposite, you say sich fühlen / sein wie ein Fisch auf dem Trockenen.

Back to French. One also uses an expression heureux comme un poisson dans l’eau, which is similar to the English happy as a clam (at high tide).

Although an expression comme un poisson hors de l’eau exists, it is not that common. One would rather say ne pas être dans son élément or ne pas être dans son assiette.

In Russian, one says быть /  чувствовать себя как рыба в воде, but to express the opposite, one uses an expression быть не в своей тарелке,  ‘not to be in one’s plate’, borrowed from the French ne pas être dans son assiette.

The history of the borrowing is funny. The French assiette, from the verb asseoir, ‘to sit’, used to have several meanings, including ‘position’, for example on a horse, and ‘place’, for example at the table. Somewhere and somehow, the two meanings got confused by translating into Russian.