Sunday, 30 October 2011

Lordly language

There are few words that carry as much weight in the English language as ‘lord’. Lord is used to describe both God and Jesus Christ in the Bible, where the word is used over seven thousand times. The word also has a myriad temporal meanings – the master, ruler or sovereign of men. The upper chamber of the Houses of Parliament is still called the House of Lords, and newly ennobled male peers take lord as part of their title.

So to find the word’s humblest of etymological origins was a surprise. David Crystal’s new book The Story of English in 100 Words points out that lord comes from loaf. How did the word used to denote ultimate sovereignty derive from a lump of bread?

The Oxford English Dictionary’s thorough history of the word shows its development. It started out in Old English as hláford – a combination of hláf (bread or loaf) and ward (keeper). The hláford was the keeper of bread, or the head of the household who had responsibility to feed his servants (those who eat his bread, or hláfǽta (bread eaters). Eventually shortened to lord (by the 15th century this spelling was common), it was shorn of its original meaning and elevated in importance.

Other Germanic languages did not follow this etymological development, but share the root in some of their words. So an old German word for ‘employer’ is brotherr, or brot herr – bread-lord (and similarly archaic to the term ‘master and servant’ in English). In Scandinavaen languages ‘meat-mother’ means the mistress of servants (matmoder in Swedish, madmoder in Danish and matmóđir in Icelandic).

All stand, please!

In 1968 John Brunner, a British novelist, worked out that the entire world’s population of 3.5 billion could stand shoulder to should on an island the size of the Isle of Man (572 km²). In 1950 the earth’s 2.5 billion people could have squeezed on to the Isle of Wight (381 km²). He prophesised that by 2010 there would be 7 billion people, and they would fit on an island the size of Zanzibar (1,554 km²).

The result was his novel Stand on Zanzibar which centred on the consequences of overpopulation. His societal predictions were not fulfilled, but he was only a year out in working out when the earth would welcome number 7,000,000,000.

And what happens next to the world’s population? The UN has predicted that by 2050 there will be 9.3 billion. This future world would need an island the size of Tenerife (Spain) or Maui (Hawaii, USA) to fit its burgeoning populations.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Ticket to Vokzal

The Russian word for a main train station is Vokzal (воксал). Say it out loud - does it remind you of anything? Say it in a suitably English accent, and it sounds like Vauxhall. Is this a coincidence, or is there an etymological connection between this minor suburban railway station on the London and South Western Railway and the grand Imperial terminii of Tsarist Russia?
The most beguiling story is that Vauxhall Station was the location chosen to show off British technological prowess to a Russian delegation. Just a short trip down river from the Houses of Parliament, it was an ideal location to demonstrate the workings of a railway network with a newly built station. According to this explanation, the Russiansmisinterpreted the place name as a descriptor, and became the generic term for all Russian railway stations. From this root, a number of fabulous embellishments were added. From Tsar Nicholas I being personally responsible for the mistake on his trip to London in 1844 to Russian readers of Bradshaw's timetable mistaking the prominent name Vauxhall as being the correct term describing the terminus of the L&SWR (in the days before the L&SWR had pushed through to Waterloo Station).
Unfortunately, whilst this makes the best story, it is almost certainly untrue (not least because Russian Railways predate the establishment of Vauxhall Station by one year). But this does not mean there is no connection between Russian railways and the southern London suburb. For centuries, Vauxhall was synonomous with entertainment. Several acres of gardens, tree-lined walkways and pavillions made up the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. With lanterns, fireworks, music, theatre, hot air balloons and even a 1,000 man re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo, the Pleasure Gardens provided the capital with unrivalled escapism from the mid 17th century.
It was so famous that the name 'Vauxhall' was used by similar pleasure grounds around the world. It had entered the Russian language as Vokzal, and pleasure grounds within the estate of the Pavlovsk Palace in St. Petersburg soon bore this name. The first railway in Russia served Imperial interests, running from Saint Petersburg via Tsarskoye Selo (the Tsar's Village) to the Pavlovsk Palace. Its terminus near the Pavlovsk Palace's pleasure grounds soon adopted the name Vokzal, which then went on to provide the generic term for teminii in Russian.
There are other interesting etymological explanations. Some have suggested that it derives from the German Volkssaal (people's hall), or the Russian vokalny zal (vocal hall). The latter allegedly deriving from the tradition of great Russian singers being honoured by performances in major railway stations. Neither are particularly convincing, but add more colour and confusion to this mystery.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Amazing words

Have you ever piled on the pounds after a particularly nasty breakup? Seen your weight increase during periods of stress? It is a concept many will be familiar with. But only in German does the phenomena merit its own word – Kummerspeck. Kummerspeck translates as the excess weight gained from emotional overeating, but literally means grief bacon.

Mental Floss have gathered together 29 of the best examples of these words (volume 1 and volume 2). Many will be familiar with schadenfreude but what about fremdschämen – the cringing embarrassment you get when you see someone else putting their foot in it. Think Inbetweeners or  Meet the Parents.

Out of the 29, my favourite three are:

1. Gumusservi (Turkish) - meaning the moonlight shining on water.

2. Bakku-shan (Japanese) – the experience of seeing a woman who appears pretty from behind but not from the front (familiar to fans of Clueless as a “total Monet”, or in Viz’s Profanasaurus if blonde as a golden deceiver).

3. Tartle (Scots) – the panicked hesitation moments before introducing someone whose name you can’t remember. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The deadliest battle

More people died in the Siege of Leningrad than the combined World War Two losses of the United Kingdom and United States combined. The Siege, also known as the Leningrad Blockade, lasted 872 days and, according to some estimates, resulted in over a million deaths each from the Red Army and the civilian population.

Estimates of total deaths range from 1,117,000 to 4,500,000, but even at the lower end of estimates it ranks as one of the, if not the, bloodiest battles in recorded history. In total casualties it rivals two other bloodbaths of the Eastern Front - the Battle of Stalingrad (with losses estimated at between 1,250,000 and 1,798,619) and the Battle of Moscow (estimates of 930,000 to 1,680,000 dead). It probably exceeded the losses in the Battle of the Somme (with approximately 1,200,000 dead).

Many of the civilian deaths came from starvation, particularly in the savage winter of 1941 – 1942. During this period the official bread ration was reduced to 125 grams with the bulk of this meagre sustenance comprising sawdust and plaster. Cannibalism became such a threat to morale that the Leningrad Police formed a unit to deal with cannibals. 

Leningrad was rewarded with the Order of Lenin to commemorate its bravery. It took more than laudatory speeches and medals to restore the city – its population collapsed to 600,000 and only returned to its pre-war level of three million in the 1960s.

Magic line

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The American-Canadian border is often referred to as the 49th parallel as it runs for much of its length along the 49th parallel north. It is the longest border between two countries in the world, stretching 8,891 kilometers (5,525 miles) (including the Alaska-Yukon/British Columbia frontier). The continuous border stretches 6,416 kilometres (3987 miles) between Douglas (British Columbia) and Blaine (Washington) on the Pacific coast to Lubeck (Maine) and Welshpool (New Brunswick).
A Convention between the British and Americans in 1818 settled the US and Canadian boundary for the great western expanses at the 49th parallel. This was largely academic as  neither the United Kingdom nor the United States was immediately sovereign over the territories on its side of the line. Control of vast tracts of prarie and forestland still rested with the local First Nations, including the Métis, Assiniboine, Lakota and Blackfoot. Among these nations, the 49th parallel was nicknamed the 'Medicine Line' because of its seemingly magical ability to prevent U.S. soldiers from crossing it.

Monkey business

Shimla is currently the capital city of Himachal Pradesh. Under its former name, Simla, it was the summer capital of the British Raj. As temperatures and humidity soared on the sweltering plains below, the ruling classes of the sub-continent would head to the mountains, climbing into the cooler climes of the Himilayan foothills.

Apparently a slice of Surrey in the foothills, it is an architecturally arresting sight. Sir Edward Lutyens was on his way to his commission to build the imperial capital at New Delhi, and inspected Simla. He wasn't impressed:

"It is inconceivable and consequently very English! - to have a capital as Simla, entirely of tin roofs ... if one was told monkeys had built it all one could only say 'What wonderful monkeys! They must be shot in case they do it again'."