Winter words

the snow of yesteryear

This winter, we had beautiful snow in the Baltics, and I took up cross-country skiing again, which used to be my favourite sport at school. Now, a thought has crossed my mind that in alternative reality, I would have enjoyed being a professional cross-country skier. Snow, cold, movement, solitude, pure bliss.

While I was daydreaming about skiing championships, my inner linguist was wide awake and was wondering about expressions related to ski, in any language.

I could recall only one, in Russian: навострить лыжи (to sharpen ones’ ski), meaning to try to leave surreptitiously.

Another Russian expression is about sledges: любишь кататься, люби и саночки возить (if you like sledging, you should like to carry the sledge). The closest English equivalents are ‘if you want to dance, you have to pay the piper’, or simply, ‘there is no such things as free lunch’.

What about other winter delights, such as snow, frost, and cold?

In English, many useful expressions relate to the word cold. To come in from the cold, to be left out in the cold, to get cold feet, to get (and to give) the cold shoulder, cold comfort.

Surprisingly, French is quite rich in wintry expressions: ne pas avoir froid aux yeux is the equivalent of ‘not be faint-hearted’ , battre froid à qqn means ‘to give somebody the cold shoulder’, faire boule de neige is ‘to snowball’, and fondre comme neige au soleil is ‘to melt away’, ‘to disappear into thin air’.

My favourite expression is mais où sont les neiges d’antan (where is the snow of yesteryear?), which comes from a poem Ballade des dames du temps jadis (Ballade of Ladies of Time Gone By) by a 15th century French poet François Villon. In the 20th century, it was made into a song by Georges Brassens.

Year in Languages 2020

light in the darkness

The name 19 languages reflects my desire to learn 19 languages, to various degrees of mastery.

Unlike in 2019, when I had not planned my language learning ahead, in 2020, prompted by the first lock-down, I actually sat down and thought deeply about my language focus for the rest of the year.

I decided that three priorities would be more than enough: improving English, improving Italian, and learning Estonian.

These three languages were in focus in 2020, although I used more throughout the year. In fact, every day I use at least three languages, but the average is five.

So, how well did I do in 2020? Let’s look first at my three priorities.


I set myself tree goals: to speak more idiomatically, to have a richer vocabulary, and to improve my pronunciation and intonation. To achieve these goals, I intended to learn idiomatic expressions and phrasal verbs, to do pronunciation exercises, and to shadow native English speakers.

I managed to work only on the vocabulary, focusing in idioms, and learned plenty: colour idioms, food idioms, nature idioms, you name it. Although I still feel that improving my English is an uphill battle, sometime in September I caught myself using in professional setting the idiomatic expressions that I had learned. For example, I would write that a proposal was not ‘set in stone’, that two partners were working ‘hand in glove’, or that we needed to ‘keep the show on the road’. I was pleased like a cat that ate the cream.

Lesson learned from this experience: have fewer goals for English. In fact, with English, one goal at a time would be enough.


Estonian was the second focus of 2020, and I am pleased with my progress. I finished my 1980s Estonian manual, followed all 30 episodes of the first series of a radio programme Как это по-эстонски? (‘How do you say it in Estonian?’), writing down all grammar rules and examples, and finished 13 out of 16 lessons of the free online course Keeleklikk for beginners. I have followed some Estonians on Twitter, managing to understand some tweets about current Estonian politics, and learned some useful words, such as valitsus ‘government’.


Back in June, I decided that 2020 would be an Italian year, and set myself three lofty goals.

First, learning Italian poems by heart. Total failure: I learned only one poem in the whole year, albeit a wonderful one, Meriggiare by Eugenio Montale.

Second, covering my gaps in grammar and vocabulary. 50/50: I learned quite a few idioms and wrote down expressions and idioms from the books I was reading.

Third, reading in Italian for pleasure. Bravissima: I read 12 Italian books, including Boccaccio Decameron, Dante Inferno, Italo Calvino I nostri antenati, and all four volumes of Amica geniale (Neapolitan novels) by Elena Ferrante.

I had a plan to revise some forgotten aspects of Italian grammar over summer, but did not do it. My spoken Italian is grammatically sound, hence, given traveling to Italy was out of question this year, I decided I would rather read books than revise subjunctive.

Other languages.

Ancient Greek.

This year, I read my way through books 4 to 6 of Plato Republic. I read several sections each Saturday morning from January through June, then took a summer break, and resumed my reading in November, reading both on Saturdays and on Sundays. I finished the last chapters of book 6 by reading every day over the Christmas break.

In spring, I read one of the earliest accounts of an epidemic, namely chapters 2.47–2.54 of Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War where he described the Plague of Athens, which devastated the city in the 5th century BC.

For 2021, my plan is to finish the remaining four books of the Republic, and move on to my beloved and difficult Thucydides after that.


My interest for German spiked with the corona crisis, as Germany was handling the crisis rather well and German epidemiologists were a good source of reliable information. I followed some of them on Twitter, listened to several Angela Merkel speeches, and read some articles. I also decided that improving German would be my priority in 2021.


I use French at work daily, and read some work-related stuff. I also followed French news and learned a couple of useful idiomatic expressions from my French colleagues.


I have not read a single book, but I followed the news, and spoke weekly with friends and acquaintances. This year, some of the most intellectually stimulating conversations I had were in Latvian.


I read some twenty books by the 19th, 20th, and 21st century writers, ranging from Lev Tolstoi and Mikhail Lermontov to Dina Rubina and Narine Abgaryan.


I read one book in Spanish at the beginning of the year, and many articles. After that, I followed some Spanish speakers on Twitter, and read an occasional article. I made several trips to Spain before the pandemics, when I managed to speak in Spanish in professional context.

Throughout the year, I followed with delight all news related to a rising star of Spanish literature, Irene Vallejo, whose book El infinito en el junco (‘Infinity in a reed’), about the invention of books in the ancient world, has been voted the Spanish book of the year 2020. Published in September 2019, the book is a bestseller: 26 editions, over 150 000 copies sold, multiple national awards, raving reviews, and translations rights to some 30 languages. I am a fan, and cannot wait to see how the world discovers this thoughtful and delicate writer.

In Spain, the book has been considered an antidote to the pandemics, as many readers reported the book gave them consolation in the times of darkness.

This year, I read fifty books in total, in English, Russian, Italian, Ancient Greek, and Spanish, and for me, too, reading was a star of light in the dark.

That’s all, my language year 2020 in review.

Language Monthly, December 2020, Etymology

white December

December is the 12th month, despite the fact that its name means the ‘tenth’. It derives from Latin decem ‘ten’, as December was the tenth month of the old Roman calendar, which began with March.

I can spend hours looking for etymologies, and have compiled a list of my favourite resources.


Online Etymology Dictionary


Vocabolario Etimologico della Lingua Italiana di Ottorino Pianigiani

Vocabolario Treccani


The Online Etymological Dictionary of Spanish

Diccionario de la lengua española (DLE)



The advantage is that you can search in many languages. The disadvantage is that being a compilation, it can be unreliable or plainly wrong.


Eesti etümoloogiasõnaraamat

Yes, it is in Estonian, but invaluable for comparative Finno-Ugric and comparative linguistics. In fact, for anyone who already knows some Baltic, Slavic, or Germanic languages, understanding etymologies of Estonian words is a useful tool for remembering these words.

Let’s take an Estonian work raamat, meaning a ‘book’. At a first approximation, it resembles nothing. But when you look at its etymology, you realise it is related to the Latvian grāmata, meaning a ‘book’, which in turn is a borrowing from Slavic. In Russian, грамота means ‘official document’ and also ‘ability to read and write’. The Slavs borrowed the word from the Greek γράμματα ‘letters’, of which the English grammar is also a descendant.

Everything in the garden is lovely

up the garden path

I spent the summer and early autumn in the countryside, where I decided to learn English idioms related to gardens, trees, plans, flowers, fences, and such. (All in a vain attempt to improve my English, stuck on a plateau for the last 15 years.)

The one expression I did not know before is ‘to lead somebody up the garden path’, meaning to deceive on purpose. This expression will surely come handy when I have to deal with a particularly manipulative business partner.

The next expression is ‘to rest on one’s laurels’, which has equivalents in many European languages.

In general, I have a quick rule of thumb: if the same expression exists in the three languages that come to my mind most quickly (English, French, and Russian), it implies a common origin — Classical, Biblical, or literary. Here, the origin is Classical: ‘s’endormir sur ses lauriers’ or ‘se reposer sur ses lauriers’ in French, ‘почивать на лаврах’ in Russian, point out to Ancient Greece and its tradition to crown winners with laurel wreaths.

Several expressions are Shakespearean: ‘to gild the lily’, ‘a rose by any other name / would smell as sweet’, and, the most mysterious, ‘primrose path’, which usually leads to ruin, destruction, or similar unwanted outcome.

But the one I found most congenial is ‘everything in the garden is lovely’, which often implies the loveliness only on surface, perhaps even a lull before the storm.

In Russian, an expression with a similar connotation is Всё хорошо, прекрасная маркиза!, which in turns is a translation from a French 1930s song Tout va très bien, Madame la Marquise!

Not a day without a line

so many lines

I have always enjoyed reading long books, especially long novels. In my youth, my favourite novel was War and Peace, which I reread in Russian at least three times. Last year, the book I liked most was a 1575 pages novel in German. This year, a tetralogy in Italian.

Some of these books are difficult to read, either because of a complex subject matter, or of the language I do not master, or an older variety of a familiar language. Plato in Ancient Greek. Don Quixote in Spanish. Dante in Italian.

Still, if I want to read them, I plough on. Over the years, I developed a method of reading long and linguistically complicated texts, based on three principles.

First, as they say it in Latin, nulla dies sine linea, ‘not a day without a line’. To keep the momentum going yet not to get overwhelmed, I read a portion of text, be it a page, a chapter, or a section, every day, often, at a dedicated time in the day.

The daily lesson can vary in length, but it should be short enough not to tire me out.

Thus, I read Boccaccio’s Decameron over three months this summer, every morning going through three or four stories. Now, I am reading Dante’s Inferno, one canto every evening.

Second, I read every daily portion at least twice.

I first learned this principle many years ago, from a book on language learning by Kató Lomb, an accomplished Hungarian polyglot of the 20th century, who relied on reading as her main language learning method.

I adopted this principle of reading every passage multiple times, and have been using it ever since.

First time, I read to get the gist of what is going on. It is often surprising how much one can gather, guess, and deduce from the context. Second time, I read to understand what I have not understood the first time, sometimes looking up words in a dictionary or pieces of grammar in a manual. I might reread some passages the third time, if I did not get a critical aspect, or if I like a particular turn of phrase and would like to learn it.

Third, I do not really bother about unfamiliar words. At first, I skip them, and look them up only if I miss the meaning. Only when a word pops up repeatedly, and its precise understanding is critical, I will learn it by heart.

For example, in Decameron, I could easily guess the meaning of ‘cagione’ (an archaic variation of ‘occasione’), but really needed to know the precise meaning of ‘vago’ (the women are often referred to as ‘vaghe donne’), as the word has multiple interpretations.

I borrowed this approach from a report I read somewhere, on Anna Akhmatova, a famous Russian poet, learning English in mature age to read Shakespeare in the original. Allegedly, every time she consulted an unfamiliar word in a dictionary, she would put a dot next to it. Once a word had more than seven dots, she would learn it by heart.

I do not remember when I read this report neither whether it is authentic. Still, this vocabulary learning method works well for me.

Language Monthly, June 2020, Spanish

puerto de barcelona

Strictly speaking, most links I am about to share date from before June.

For the first months of 2020, I was reading intensively and extensively in Spanish, but in early June, I decided to focus on Italian for the rest of the year.

Many years ago, I made a costly mistake starting learning Spanish when my Italian was not strong enough, a mistake whose consequences I have been coping with ever since. Now, I avoid working on my Spanish and Italian at the same time.

So, back to my Spanish links. My favourite Spanish media is Zenda, ‘territorio de libros, amigos, y aventura’. Reading Zenda daily in March, April, and May helped me to cope with menacing, worsening, depressing daily news about the pandemics death toll and inadequate response from many in the positions of power.

Zenda hosts a column of one of my favourite Spanish writers Arturo Pérez-Reverte, called Patente de corso.

I had been reading the column for years before I realised I did not understand the meaning of the title, so I had to look it up. It turns out, patente de corso in Spanish, lettre de marque ou lettre de course in French, lettera di corsa o patente di corsa in Italian, Kaperbrief in German, каперский патент in Russian, letter of marque and reprisal in English, is an old maritime practice, a document allowing a private person to attack an enemy country’s vessel.

Another favourite media is XLSemanal, which publishes balanced articles on important societal topics, interesting interviews, and a series of columns, firmas, of which my favourites are Pequeñas infamias and Mi hermosa lavandería.

Talking about poetry, Desamor by Rosario Castellanos, a Mexican author and diplomat, brought by Zenda, struck me.

Me vio como se mira al través de un cristal
o del aire
o de nada.

Y entonces supe: yo no estaba allí
ni en ninguna otra parte
ni había estado nunca ni estaría.

Y fui como el que muere en la epidemia,
sin identificar, y es arrojado
a la fosa común.

I like the tense and mode variations of the second stanza. The ending, a la fosa común, mass grave, общая могила, and the death in time of epidemics, something which seemed so remote only six months ago and now has become our common reality!

Finally, this interview with a Scheherezade moderna en tiempos de pandemia, a rising star of Spanish literature, Irene Vallejo. Her book, El infinito en el junco, about book invention in the ancient world, has become a real phenomenon in the Spanish-speaking literature and one of the best sellers in the times of the pandemics. Check also her column in El Pais, and basically start reading anything she writes.

El infinito en el junco is the book I most want to buy right now. My last trip to Spain, a few days before the lockdown, was too short to fit a visit into a bookstore, but when the pandemics is over, I will go to Spain again and get myself a copy.

In praise of language maintenance

no day without a word

How can I learn multiple languages at once? I think this question misses the point.

Many of us, language enthusiasts, at some point engaged in learning several languages simultaneously, with various degrees of success. Based on this experience, some have sworn ‘never again’, while others saw the light and decided this was the way to go.

For me, a more useful question is ‘how can I maintain multiple languages at once?’, which all of us face on a regular basis.

With languages, unless you deliberately maintain your hard acquired skills, you forget. Lest you forget, you need to maintain; and if you want to advance, you need to improve.

I think the secret to successfully maintaining multiple languages at once is leveraging the difference.

The languages should be different from each other. Your level in these languages should be different. Your ambitions and goals in these languages should be different. The time of the day when you study these languages should be different, the skills you practice every day and the activities you do should differ, too.

Let me give a concrete example with the three languages I am improving, maintaining, and learning right now: English, Italian, and Estonian.

Although I use other languages with some degree of regularity, this year I deliberately chose to focus on only these three. I aim at engaging with each of them daily, and I need to fit my language studies into my otherwise busy schedule.

The three languages belong to different language families: English is Germanic, Italian is Romance, both are Indo-European, whereas Estonian is a totally different story: it’s Finno-Ugric.

For English, my goal is to speak more idiomatically, to have a richer vocabulary, and to improve my pronunciation and intonation. To achieve that, I am learning idioms and will move to phrasal verbs in July and August. When I read in English, I write out words and expressions that I liked and would like to use. I have started doing a hard but extremely useful exercise of shadowing native English speakers.

Time-wise, I always read my English book in the morning: on a good day, I might have a 30 minutes sting before work; often, only 15 minutes, which is plenty to learn at least one new expression. At the week-end, I would spend some time in the afternoon writing out new idioms, revising and recalling my expressions and old idioms. I would try to shadow at least once a week, usually in the evening.

For Italian, my goal is maintaining and reviving. I used to speak Italian daily, which is not a case now. Last year, due to my intense focus on Spanish and multiple trips to Spain, my Italian began to suffer from interference – hence this year’s decision to remedy the situation.

To do so, I read for pleasure in Italian every evening (which has a huge advantage that I fall asleep thinking in Italian). Occasionally, I write out Italian expressions and idioms. I also have been learning one Italian poem a week, at the weekend.

Over summer holidays, I will work on revising some forgotten aspects of Italian grammar, such as tenses, irregular verbs, and subjunctive. Finally, when I switch my focus in English from vocabulary to pronunciation and intonation, I will switch my focus in Italian to vocabulary.

For Estonian, I am learning the language from scratch. I started last year, learning the bare basics prior to my trip to Estonia, and doubled down this year, following an online course for beginners.

I do my Estonian lesson every day, just after finishing my work. I go through the lesson, do exercises, and learn a few new words.

I have found that a half an hour a day of Estonian provides a perfect transition from work to home mood, since engrossing myself in Estonian grammar and grappling with new vocabulary is such a contrast with my work activities.

At the week-end, I spend time revising, recalling, listening and writing down useful sentences and expressions.

A final tip. In language learning, regularity is the key. If work gets busy or life happens, I might miss a day for one of these three languages, but I try to never miss more than one day for any of the three, and I never have a day when I don’t spend some time with at least one of them.

If time is really shot, I would spend as little as five minutes reading one page, learning one expression, listening to one dialogue.  No day without a line, no day without a word.

With flying colours

out of the blue

To lend colour to my English, I have been learning colour idioms. Am I chasing rainbows? Should I raise a white flag instead?

It all started out of the blue at a dinner last month, when I made a mistake in an idiomatic expression once in a blue moon. My dining companion, a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist and English native speaker, saw my mistake as a golden opportunity to tease me about my 25-year-long English plateau. I went red in the face and challenged him to tell me expressions for every colour of the rainbow, and we came up with a meagre list of five.

Every cloud has a silver lining. As my plan for improving English includes speaking more idiomatically, I decided to learn colour idioms.

There are plenty of resources on the English colour idioms. I like this list of 90 colour idioms, this blog post from Cambridge English Dictionary, which is my go-to online dictionary, and this post, complete with a colour quiz and a hilarious colour song, which I immediately learned by heart:

I saw red coz she’d left me in the dark
She’d left me in the dark that we were in the red

Not to sail under false colours, I choose to learn only those expressions which I would naturally use, starting with those which I sort of know yet where I always make mistakes.

Each morning, bright and early, I have been revising and recalling my colour idioms.

The difference between revise and recall has been well explained by Gabriel Wyner in his book Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It:

When you study by reading through a list multiple times, you’re practicing reading, not recall. If you want to get better at recalling something, you should practice recalling it.

I find both exercises, revising and recalling, useful.

To revise, I indeed read through my list and either say the idioms out loud, write them several times, or invent a story with them, the more colourful, extravagant, and absurd the better.

To recall, I stare at a blank page before me, or lie down at night in a pitch black room, and try to remember idioms in groups by colour.

Once I am done with colours, I will move to English idioms involving animals, food, and weather, until I pass the idiom test with flying colours.

Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait

if youth but knew

Last February, I went to a small Spanish town of Girona, to share with PhD students my own experiences doing a PhD in the early 2000s.

The town was full of young people, local students and visitors alike.

Perhaps because of this youthful crowd, or of nostalgia of my distant student years, or perhaps of my looming birthday, I could not stop thinking of a Russian saying, Если бы молодость знала, если бы старость могла (“if youth only knew, if age only could”).

Wait, suddenly said my inner linguist, but where does this saying come from?

It turns out, it is a translation of a French saying si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait, which was attested in the 16th century.

The source is Henri Estienne (1528 or 1531 – 1598), also known as Henricus Stephanus, a 16th-century French printer, humanist, philologist, and Classical scholar. His most celebrated work is the five-volume Thesaurus graecae linguae, or Greek thesaurus, published in 1572 and still in use today.

In 1594, he published a collection of epigrams related to proverbs and other sayings, called Les prémices, ou le premier livre des proverbes épigrammatisés, ou des épigrammes proverbiales rangées en lieux communs. Epigramme Nr 191 refers precisely to the French saying si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait.

An accomplished philologist, Etienne not only explains the meaning and the usage of the French saying, but analyses its equivalents in Ancient Greek, where a similar saying existed: exploits to the young, advice to the old:

quelques autres languages ont des proverbes correspondants à celui-ci: & notamment le grec: disant,

νέοις μὲν ἔργα, βουλαὶ (ou βουλὰς) δὲ γεραιτέροισιν.

C’est à dire, aux jeunes les exploits, aux vieux les conseils.
Ils ont encore une autre semblable à cestui-ci.
Mais il me souvient aussi d’un tiers, auquel il est fait mention de ceux qui sont entre deux âges. & quant aux vieillards, il ne fait mention que de leurs souhaits. Car il dit aussi:

ἔργα νέων, βουλαὶ δὲ μέσων, εὐχαὶ δὲ γερόντων

C’est à dire, les exploits des jeunes, les conseils de ceux qui sont de moyen âge, les souhaits des vieillards. Mais il est certain que de ce proverbe n’est pas authentique comme l’autre.

Now, what is the source of the Greek saying? It turns out, Estienne quotes Souda, or Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia, a compilation of  30000 entries, many of them using Ancient sources that have since been lost. A lexicographer himself, Etienne must have known and consulted the Suda lexicon.

In fact, the proverb figures in one of the Suda’ entries: Νέοις μὲν ἔργα, βουλὰς δὲ γεραιτέροισιν (young men should act (but) their elders advise). An English translation explains:

A truncated version (also in Appendix Proverbiorum 4.6) of an axiom attributed by Hyperides (fr. 57 Jensen) to Hesiod: ἔργα νέων, βουλαὶ δὲ μέσων, εὐχαὶ δὲ γερόντων , “Young men’s acts, the middle-aged’s advice, old men’s prayers”.

Here you are. From Russian, to French, to Ancient Greek, with probably some steps lost in between: for example, how a quotation from a learned work in French became so popular in Russian?

Curiously, on English, there is an expression ‘youth is wasted on the young’, but its meaning is different, and I don’t like it. The only English phrase about age I use frequently is ‘old age is not for sissies’, which is the title of a funny book my friends gave me for my 30th birthday.


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.