Picking Nits in English

Lately I’ve repeatedly come across two bits of English usage that look really wrong to me. Checking them up, it turns out that in one case I was right, in the other wrong.

Principle/principal. Many native English speakers of extremely high academic accomplishment don’t seem to know that “principle” is a noun and “principal” most commonly an adjective. They will happily write “my principle objection is blah blah bla”. Wroooong.

Jealousy/envy. In Swedish, the words svartsjuka and avund have distinct meanings. Svartsjuka (literally “black illness”) is what you feel when you fear that your partner may be cheating on you. Avund is what you feel when a colleague gets the big grant you both applied for. Now, I used to believe that “jealousy” mapped exactly onto svartsjuka and “envy” onto its cognate avund. I thought people were making an entertaining error when they said they were jealous of the neighbour’s new car. Not so. According to the dictionaries I’ve consulted, “jealousy” in fact encompasses both svartsjuka and avund, while “envy” does map directly onto avund. Envy is thus a subset of jealousy. I find that I’m expected to experience jealousy both if the mailman bangs my wife and if he gets the big grant I applied for.

Don’t even get me started on how bad native English speakers are at faking King James Bible grammar.

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Carl Michael Bellman’s Butterfly

i-1bfa9d22b47287c4ba35779cbac5bd2f-z_bellman_bellman.jpgOne of the brightest stars of Swedish literature is Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795). Much of his work is a kind of humorous beat poetry set to music, chronicling the lives of Stockholm drunkards and whores. Central themes are boozing, sex and death.

“You think the grave’s too deep?
Well then, have a drink
Then have another two and another three
That way you’ll die happier”

“A girl in the green grass and wine in green glasses
I feast on both, both gather me to their bosom
Let’s have some more resin on the violin bow!”

But Bellman wasn’t strictly speaking part of the underworld he wrote about. He was more of a bourgeois onlooker, periodically a court favourite, and counted the era’s top artists and intellectuals among his friends. One of Bellman’s most well-known and beloved songs is a piece of fawning praise to King Gustaf III, eulogising his great park and summer palace at Haga north of Stockholm. It was written in 1790-91 in an unsuccessful attempt to get Bellman’s wife Lovisa a job as overseer of the Haga household, and then modified and dedicated to the poet’s landlord whom he owed for rent. Pretty much everyone in Sweden can sing Fjäriln vingad syns på Haga, but some of the words are archaic and the syntax is convoluted, so few really understand the sense of the lyrics anymore. Here’s a literal translation I’ve made.

At Haga, the butterfly can be seen making its green home amid misty frost and down, its bed in a flower. Every little marshland creature, just awakened by the sun’s warmth, is inspired by the western wind to festive revelry.

Haga, in your bosom are seen sprouting grass and the yellow plaza. The proud swan raises its neck, rocking in your streamlets. From afar in the open spaces of the forest are heard incessant echoes: sometimes the hammering of granite, sometimes axes in birch and fir trees. [Referring to the king’s construction projects in the area.]

See, the Brunnsviken inlet’s little mermaids raise their golden horns, and water cascades higher even than Solna church steeple. On a neat road under vaulted trees the horse frolics and the wheel throws dust into the air, while the farmer smiles fondly toward Haga.

What a divine pleasure to be greeted by one’s beloved under the eye of such a mild monarch in a park as lovely as this! Everyone cries with gratitude whenever his eye falls upon them. Even the most bad-tempered person is happy when touched and charmed by that gaze.

For lyrical translations of Bellman into English, see Paul Britten Austin’s Fredman’s Epistles and Songs. Here are the Swedish lyrics for Fjäriln vingad including the little-known original job-seeking version. Haga hasn’t changed much in the past 200 years, and the whole park is open to the public. Highly recommended!

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With the Varnishing Ahead, I’m at My Shavings a Lot

The poet, philologist and bishop Esaias Tegnér (1782-1846) once wrote,

All bildning står på ofri grund till slutet
Blott barbariet var en gång fosterländskt

“All our learning must always stand on a slavish foundation
Barbarism is our single true heritage”

This was in the context of how nice Tegnér felt that the late-18th century reign of Gustaf III had been. This was somewhat controversial in the time of national romanticism, as the Gustavian era had been inescapably saturated by French cultural imperialism.

And Tegnér was right. As European countries go, Sweden was very late with all the refinements of civilisation. Almost all Swedish words for civilised matters have recently been borrowed and adapted from Continental languages. Lately, for instance, I have been thinking about two words having to do with art, both from the French, both with fun etymologies.

An artist’s studio is known as en ateljé in Swedish. This is the French atelier, meaning “studio, workshop”, from the earlier astelier, meaning “pile of wood shavings or artisan’s workshop full of such shavings”, from Latin astella meaning “small spear or wood-shaving shaped like one”.

The opening of an exhibition is called en vernissage, from the same French word, which literally means “varnishing”. Artists would apply the last touches to an oil painting and seal it with varnish at the exhibition venue. The British painter Turner liked to make semi-finished oil paintings and finish them at opening night to show off to his audience. If I understand correctly, some of his most daring and abstract canvases are in fact such unfinished pieces that he never got round to doing up properly.

So, how do you think artists spend the week before an important varnishing? In their pile of wood shavings.

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i-eab5ab57e6939624f93faaecbfd98135-helicopter-Italian-army-RF.jpgThe other day I suddenly understood the etymology of the word “helicopter”. Many would probably try to take the word apart as heli-copter, which makes no sense. I mean, what does it mean to copt helis? “I am a copter and I sure love coptin’ them old helis.”

What you need to do is look at words like Pteranodon (meaning “tooth on wing”), Diptera (meaning “two-wings”) and “helix”. Helico-pter! Helix-wing! Suddenly there’s a new nerdy option for the hyphenation of that word.

I once read a newspaper article about record producer Phil Spector, where he was poetically described as “helicopter paranoid”. This expression has stayed with me as an unsolved mystery. What can the journalist have meant? That Phil was afraid of visitations by the genus Helicoptera? That he was so paranoid that his head was spinning faster than the rotor of a chopper? I wonder if it’s possible to be omnibus schizoid or tricycle neurotic.

I once saw Apocalypse Now re-made as a sword-and-sorcery fantasy stage play. The helicopters had been replaced by winged lizards. Now I wonder if they were pterodactyls and if the writer was on to the etymology of the word “helicopter”.

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Strawberry Parking Lot


Dear Reader — let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to the Strawberry Parking Lot.

For the past century and a half, the naming of Swedish places has largely been taken out of the people’s hands and regulated by the authorities. New names of big important places are no longer negotiated organically among those who talk about them. Instead, county and municipal planners tell people what to call a certain place. Thus a number of new names in my home area: Saltsjöbaden, Solsidan, Jarlaberg. Fine names handed down from on high, meaning “Salt Sea Bathing Resort”, “Sunny Side” and “Earl’s Mountain”, names which have superseded quite different older names.

A few years ago, a conservative politician wanted to rename my housing project, Fisksätra, to Saltsjövik, “Salt Sea Inlet”, on the grounds that the current name allegedly had unpleasant connotations. My neighbour, the human geographer Mats Widgren, replied drily in the local paper that a) “Fisksätra” only has unpleasant connotations among people who don’t actually live there, such as conservative politicians with big houses, b) this unique name has worked fine at least since the 1590s.

But the Swedish language hasn’t been entirely stripped of its organic naming powers. Small places are still named the old way as and when need arises. Every day on my way to work I pass a good example: Jordgubbsparkeringen, “the Strawberry Parking Lot”.

Everyone in my area knows where it is, but you won’t find it on any map. It’s one of the two parking lots of Igelboda school, where I was a pupil in the early 80s and my kids are now. One parking lot is near the daycare centre and within sight of the school, and is called Dagisparkeringen or Skolparkeringen, “Daycare/School Parking Lot”. The other one is farther from the school and on the other side of the railroad, right beside the main road to Saltsjöbaden. For about 20 years, someone has been selling strawberries under an awning there in the summer. For several months a year, every time you pass the place you’re reminded of strawberries. And so it’s the Strawberry Parking Lot all year round. A beautiful name, and useful too as it denotes unambiguously a place everyone knows and passes frequently.

But you know, I know when it’s a dream.

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Speaking of Meat in Post-Conquest Britain


Dear Reader Arkein from the land of the Freedom Fries and EuroDisney set me a-thinking about Medieval barns, butcheries, kitchens and dinner-tables. I’ve got a story about that, and I believe it’s far more likely to be true than that slanderous yarn about Louis XIV’s pinkie.

The English language has different words for livestock species and for their meat. Cow — beef. Pig — pork. Sheep — mutton. And there’s a pattern to the linguistic descent of these words: the live-animal words were there already in Old English, whereas the meat words are French loan words appearing from the Middle English period onward.

Middle English (and Modern English, I might add) has been called a product of Anglo-French creolisation. After the Norman Conquest from AD 1066 onward, much of the UK had its social elite replaced by French-speaking Normans or at least culturally re-orientated to a French template. The members of this elite liked feasting on meat, and they talked about meat in French at the dinner table. Boeuf. Porc. Mouton. But the people who worked in the barns, butcheries and kitchens spoke English. Cow. Pig. Sheep. And so the language still preserves an ethnic and social distinction between people who eat meat and people who tend livestock.

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Ubuntu Slip of the Tongue

i-6ee772a82b9d9fb169128feb7646e2ea-edgy-ring.jpgUbuntu Linux is a free Open Source operating system with office software, intended to empower the Third World by freeing it from dependence on Western software companies. It shares its name with a humanist ideology promoted by people such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. The software is also popular in the West, where most of the development takes place and where most of the installations running it are likely located. The project’s Swedish homepage prominently features a fine piece of inadvertent colonial condescension. It’s actually quite heartwarmingly naïve in its complete lack of political correctness.
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A Dear Reader who calls themself Ophistokont made me curious about what this intriguing word might mean. It’s very rare, with only seven Google hits and no entry in Merriam-Webster. Ophi- should have to do with snakes. -stok- calls stoichiometry to mind, having to do with elements. -ont has to do with being. Something that forms the basic element of a snake-like thing, maybe?

I didn’t make that up unaided. Those seven Google hits explain (mostly in German) that an ophistokont is the end of a single-cell being from which its motile flagellum extends. These little whip-like outboard motors have been the object of creationist speculation along the lines that “this is too cool to have evolved by natural selection”: speculation refuted here.