Beds that lie

Welsh sign outside a furniture store in Bangor

The other day I noticed the word gwlau on a sign outside a furniture shop. It’s a Welsh word I hadn’t seen or heard before, but from the context I worked out that it meant ‘beds’. The sign also included the words gwlau soffa (sofa beds). As I hadn’t come across this plural form of gwely [ˈɡwɛlɨ/ˈɡweːli] (bed) before, I wondered if it was a mistake.

According to Geiriadur yr Academi and Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, the plural forms of gwely are gwelyau or gwlâu, so the words on the sign weren’t wrong, but were just missing a to bach (circumflex) on the a.

Gwely comes from the Proto-Celtic *uɸo-legyom from *legh (to lie down), from the Proto-Indo-European *upo (under, below) & *legʰ- ‎(to lie (down)), and is cognate with the Cornish guely and the Breton gwele. *legʰ- is the root of the Irish luigh, the Manx lhie, and the Scottish Gaelic laigh (to lie (down)); and also the Italian letto and French lit (bed), via the Latin lectus (bed); the English lair, the German Lager (store, camp), and the Swedish läger (camp), as well as other words [source].

English, Etymology, Language, Proto-Indo-European, Welsh, Words and phrases Leave a comment

Ingenious genius

The word ingenious sounds like the antonym (opposite) of genius as in- is often used as a negative suffix (invisible, indivisible, etc). However they are not.

Ingenious means:

– displaying genius or brilliance
– tending to invent
– characterized by genius
– cleverly done or contrived; witty; original; shrewd; adroit; keen; sagacious.

It comes from:

– the Middle French ingénieux (ingenious)

– from the Old French engenious (ingenious)

– from the Latin ingeniōsus ‎(endowed with good natural capacity, gifted with genius), from ingenium ‎(innate or natural quality, natural capacity, genius), from in ‎(in) and gignere ‎(to produce)

– from the Old Latin genere, from genus (birth, origin)

– from the Proto-Italic *genos (lineage, origin)

– from the Proto-Indo-European *ǵénh₁os ‎(race), from *ǵenh₁- ‎(to produce, beget).

Genius means:

– someone possessing extraordinary intelligence or skill; especially somebody who has demonstrated this by a creative or original work in science, music, art etc.
– extraordinary mental capacity
– inspiration, a mental leap, an extraordinary creative process
– the guardian spirit of a place or person (in Roman mythology)
– a way of thinking, optimizing one’s capacity for learning and understanding

It comes from:

– the Latin genius ‎(the guardian spirit of a person, spirit, inclination, wit, genius, literally “inborn nature”), from gignō ‎(to beget, produce)

– from the Old Latin genō

– from the Proto-Indo-European root *ǵenh₁- (see above)

So ingenious and genius come from the same root, as do many other words, but took different paths to arrive at their modern forms.

In Proto-Celtic the PIE root *ǵenh₁- became *gniyeti (to make, to do), which became gníid / ·gní (to do, to work) in Old Irish, which, with a suffix became dogní (to do, to make), which became déan in Modern Irish, jean in Manx and dèan in Scottish Gaelic. This is possibly also the root of the Welsh gwneud, the Cornish gul and the Breton (g)ober). All these words mean to do or to make.

Sources: Wiktionary

Breton, Cornish, English, Etymology, Irish, Language, Latin, Manx, Proto-Indo-European, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Words and phrases Leave a comment

Language quiz

Language quiz image

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 4 Comments

The Salmon’s Daughter

Language quiz image

On Tuesday I saw a play in Bangor called Merch yr Eog / Merc’h an Eog (Daughter of the Salmon) in four different languages: Welsh, Breton, French and Guadeloupean Creole.

It was a co-production between Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru (Welsh National Theatre) and Teatr Piba from Brittany, and featured actors from Wales and Brittany. The lead role was played by Lleuwen Steffan, a Welsh singer-song writer who lives in Brittany and speaks Welsh, Breton, French, and English, fluently.

For me it was interesting to hear all the different languages, especially the Breton. I understood most of the Welsh and French, though I couldn’t always hear what they were saying clearly, and understood, or at least recognised, bits of the Breton.

There’s some discussion in the play about similarities between Welsh and Breton words, though I doubt very much if any of the Welsh speakers in the audience understood much of the Breton, unless they’d studied it. The languages have many similar words, but sound very different.

When one of the actors started speaking in Guadeloupean Creole I thought it was French at first with an unfamiliar accent, but when I listened more closely I thought is was probably a French-based Creole.

Translation was provided via an app called Sibrwd (Whisper) and was available in English, Welsh, French and Breton. However it was mainly a summary of what the actors were saying rather than a word-for-word translation, and wasn’t in time with the speech. Sometimes it was behind, sometimes ahead, so it was like watching a badly dubbed film, and made it tricky to follow the story.

There’s a review of the Bangor performance in the Daily Post.

Breton, English, French, Language, Welsh Leave a comment

Have you got your snap?

A snap tin make be Acme

On an episode of Uncle Mort’s North Country, a comedy drama on Radio 4 Extra that I listened to today, I heard the word snap used for a packed lunch. I’e heard it before, but wasn’t sure where it came from. The drama features two characters from Yorkshire: Uncle Mort and his nephew, Carter Brandon, who both speak with strong Yorkshire accents, so I thought snap might be a Yorkshire word.

I found it in a Yorkshire Dialect Dictionary defined as ‘a light meal’, and Wiktionary defines it as ‘a small meal, a snack; lunch’.

According to the The Oxford Guide to Etymology, lunch boxes were once called snap-tins in parts of the UK, and the word snap came to mean a a light meal or quick bite by metaphorical extension.

In A History of the Word on the BBC website it says that miners used snap tins to carry their lunch down the pits – the photo is an example of a miner’s snap tin.

The word snap comes from the Dutch / Low German snappen ‎(to bite; seize), from the Proto-Germanic *snappōną ‎(to snap; snatch; chatter), from the Proto-Indo-European *ksnew- ‎(to scrape; scratch; grate; rub) [source].

What do you call a container you put your lunch in?

Dutch, English, German, Language, Proto-Indo-European, Words and phrases 6 Comments

Language quiz

Language quiz image

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 1 Comment

Barking up the wrong end of the stick

Barking up the wrong tree

The phrase barking up the wrong tree means “making a mistake or a false assumption in something you are trying to achieve”. It comes from hunting dogs barking up trees where they thought their quarry was hiding, but wasn’t [source].

Apparently one French equivalent of this phrase is Frapper à la mauvaise porte (to knock at the wrong door). Does anybody know the origins of this expression?

Another French equivalent is se mettre le doigt dans l’œil (to put your finger in your eye).

To get the wrong end of the stick means to misunderstand something. I combined the two phrases in the title of this post because I like playing with words.

One equivalent in French is comprendre de travers (to understand in a crooked, askew or wrong way) [source], se tromper (to make a mistake) or faire fausse route (to go the wrong way; be on the wrong track), which can also mean ‘to bark up the wrong tree’ [source].

Are there equivalents of these phrases in other languages?

Image from:

English, French, Language, Words and phrases 1 Comment

Cashlines, ATMs and Holes in the Wall

Hole in the Wall

I discovered the other day that in Scotland the bank machines that dispense cash are known as cashlines. This was apparently the name used first for Royal Bank of Scotland cash machines, and came to be used as the general term for ATMs in Scotland [source].

In other parts of the UK such machines are known as cash machines, ATMs (Automated Teller Machines), holes in the wall and cashpoints.

In Welsh a cash machine is a peiriant arian parod (cash machine), twll yn y wal (hole in the wall) or peiriant tynnu arian (money withdrawing machine)

What are they known as in other countries and languages?

English, Language, Welsh, Words and phrases 9 Comments

Language quiz

Language quiz image

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 5 Comments

もしもし (moshi moshi)

When answering the phone in Japanese the phrase you usually used is もしもし (moshi moshi). I received an email from a Japanese guy today saying that this doesn’t mean hello, so I thought I’d find out what it actually means.

According to Tofugu, this phrase comes from the verb 申す (mōsu), which a humble equivalent of 言う (iu) – to say. Originally the phrase used was 申し上げます (mōshiagemasu) = “I’m going to say (talk)”, which was commonly used during the Edo period to talk to people of higher status. Over time it got shortened.

Another explanation of why moshi moshi is used on the phone is because it’s hard for 狸 / たぬき (tanuki) to say. Tanuki, a type of fox or racoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides), are tricksters in Japanese stories, and you can tell if one is on the other end of the phone if they don’t say moshi moshi back to you.

Another explanation is that when the telephone was introduced to Japan in 1890 only rich people could afford it, and they said おいおい (oi oi) when making calls. This means something like “Hey you!”, and people replied はい、良うございます (Hai, yō gozaimasu), which means roughly “Yes, I’m ready”. People thought this was too abrupt and started using 申し上げます (mōshiagemasu), which was shortened to 申す申す (mōsu mōsu) for male telephone operators, and 申し申し (mōshi mōshi) for females.

In 1889 Shigenori Katougi (加藤木重教), an electrician for the Ministry of Engineering, went to the USA to study their telephone system. He was asked how people answer the phone in Japan, and wasn’t sure how to explain the complexities involved, so just said that they use moshi moshi, which means hello. He brought the idea back to Japan, and it became the standard way by 1902.

Moshi moshi is mainly used on the phone, but occasionally in other contexts. For example, if someone is spaced out and you want to get their attention you say moshi moshi.

Here’s Tofugu’s video about this:

English, Japanese, Language, Words and phrases 3 Comments
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