Let’s DEWEY This! – The Mother Tongue

mother tongue

This month’s nonfiction post is another languagey one! And yes, I can use languagey as a word, because language is a constantly evolving system in which all words are “made up” and every word was, at one point, “not a real word.” 😉 I think Bill Bryson would side with me on this. He did write a whole book about it after all. Here are my favorite tidbits~

English is rife with annoying inconsistencies, but we can be thankful it doesn’t have the complex varieties of pitch that some other languages do. In Cantonese, for instance, yes is spoken as “hae,” but with a slight shift in vocalization, “hae” is also the female pudenda.  Yikes. Wouldn’t want to make that mistake at a dinner party. (Page 16) Penkingese is especially difficult: each sound must end with an n or ng, and all words are only one syllabic sound, leaving so few possibilities that each sound has about – gasp – 70 meanings. (Page 86) In Japanese, the word “ka” has – oh dear god – 214 meanings!! Whaaaaaaaaat!! (Page 119)

We also don’t have to walk that social tightrope that comes with languages that have different forms of pronouns depending on the circumstance. For example, German has seven varieties of “you,” while English just has the ol’ standby. (Page 18)

Here’s a curious observation: “In English we have a large number of sp- words pertaining to wetness: spray, splash, spit, sprinkle, splatter, spatter, spill, spigot. And we have a large number of fl- words to do with movement: flail, flap, flicker, flounce, flee. And quite a number of words ending in –ash describe abrupt actions: flash, dash, crash, bash, thrash, smash, slash.” (Page 25)

These are fun: “In Neo-Melanesian, an English-based creole of Papua New Guinea, the word for beard is gras bilong fes (literally ‘grass that belongs to the face’)… In African creoles you can find such arresting expressions as bak sit drayva (‘back seat driver’), wesmata (‘what’s the matter?’), and bottom-bottom wata waka (‘submarine’).” (28) I admit, after reading that last one, I couldn’t stop saying it out loud to myself, haha.

This perplexed me: “Irish Gaelic possesses no equivalent of yes or no. They must resort to roundabout expressions such as ‘I think not’ and ‘This is so.’” (35)

We all use gestures to communicate, but few of us use as complicated a gesture as this Greek one: “placing the left hand on the knee, closing one eye, looking with the other into the middle distance and wagging the free hand up and down, which means ‘I don’t want anything to do with it.” (37)


Thursday is named after Thor. Yup, that Thor. Three more weekdays are named after gods as well: Tuesday/Tiw, Wednesday/Woden, and Friday/Frig. (48)

I was flabbergasted to learn that a huge number of now-common phrases were actually crafted by Shakespeare. Such phrases include: “one fell swoop, in my mind’s eye… to be in a pickle… vanish into thin air, budge an inch, play fast and loose… the sound and the fury, to thine own self be true… cold comfort… flesh and blood, foul play… to be cruel to be kind, and on and on and on and on.” (65) He also invented entirely new vocabulary that we use all the time! Examples are: critical, monumental, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, dwindle, countless, submerged, excellent, hint, hurry, lonely, and another thousand more. (76) So next time someone snidely tells you “That’s not a wooorrrd, nyeeehhh,” just point him to literary history.

Even the dictionary messes up sometimes. The word “dord” came into being as a definition for density when someone misread the text, “D or d.” It was supposed to mean that density could be abbreviated with either a capital or lower case, but instead it got compacted into its own new word: Dord. (71)

Did you know the word “shampoo” comes from India? Or that “ketchup” comes from China? (73) I never would have guessed.

English loves adopting foreign words, but for some bizarre reason, we tend to keep the Anglo-Saxon noun but pair it with a foreign adjective. “Thus fingers are not fingerish, they are digital. Eyes are not eyeish, they are ocular.” Other examples are mouth/oral, water/aquatic, moon/lunar, sun/solar, and town/urban. (75)

An Australian slang for vomit is “technicolor yawn.” (108) Haha 🙂

Chinese writing is composed of basic units called radicals, which can be combined with other radicals to form words. “Eye and water make teardrop. Mouth and bird make song. Two women means quarrel and three women means gossip.” (117) Okay, a bit sexist as they are, I couldn’t help finding those last two funny.


One word that English-speakers love to hate is “colonel” – spelled with an l but pronounced with an r. What gives? Turns out, the word comes from the French coronelle, which actually comes from the Italian colonello.  Both words were used interchangeably for a while, until we decided to keep the French pronunciation but spell it like Italian. (122-3) Makes me want to take our ancestors by the shoulders and shake them.

Ever wonder why we have silent k’s at the start of a few words? Apparently they didn’t used to be silent. Knee was kuh-nee and know was kuh-noe.  Same goes for g- words. Gnat was guh-nat. And knight? Kuh-nee-guh-tuh. (128)

If these nonsensical spellings bother you, you’re in good company. In the early 1900s, spelling reform was a hot-button issue. Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and even Noah Webster (yup, as in Webster’s dictionary) all wanted to simplify spelling down to its most functional parts. For example, Webster favored such spellings as “soop, bred, wimmen, groop, definit, fether, fugitive, tuf, thum, hed, bilt, and tung” (155), but as you can tell, they didn’t catch on.

Many of us know that “America” comes from Amerigo Vespucci, the 15th century explorer. What I didn’t know is that Vespucci never actually made it to the northern continent, only the south, and it was through a cartographer’s error that his name got placed on the top part of the map. (163-4) Woopsy.

To conclude, here’s a few tidbits about cursing! Fun! “Turtle” is a terrible insult to the Chinese, and to call a Frenchman “kind of a cow” is worse than calling him just a cow. I would have thought every culture has its swears, but apparently there are none in Japanese. And puzzlingly, the Finns use the phrase “in the restaurant” when they hammer their thumb or miss their bus. Huh. (214)

There is a tonnnnnnn of interesting and funny stuff in this book, so if you liked this post, give the book a read. Have a languagey day! 😉


14 thoughts on “Let’s DEWEY This! – The Mother Tongue

  1. Loved this book! I still think of this anecdote from time to time:

    A tantalizing glimpse into the daily life and cosmopolitan nature of Roman Britain surfaced in 1987 with the discovery of a hoard of curse tablets in Bath near a spring once dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva. It was the practice of aggrieved citizens at that time to scratch a curse on a lead tablet and toss it with a muttered plea for vengeance into the spring. The curses were nothing if not heartfelt. A typical one went: “Docimedes has lost two gloves and asks that person who has stolen them should lose his minds and his eyes.”


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  2. This is such a smorgasbord of information, Noel. Another title for my ever-growing reading list. I’m a bit of an expressionista myself, suffering from wordus makeupicus from time to time. I liked D or d becoming Dord and am still wondering why being kind of a cow is worse than being a cow. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love Bill Bryson’s writing! His books about England are hysterical 😂 Also, if I may pass on a book recommendation…I just finished Around the World in Eighty Cliches by Laura Lee and it is a magical treasure trove of words and culture. People have THE STRANGEST expressions (my favorite being the German “The sky is full of violins for you,” i.e. to wear rose-colored glasses).

    Liked by 1 person

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