An owlfully badgered cup of tea

badger and cup

Yesterday I discovered that the Italian word for cup, tazza, is rather similar and possibly confusable with the word for badger, tasso, which can also mean a rate (of exchange) or a yew (tree).

It’s unlikely that if you mistakenly ask for un tasso di tè rather than una tazza di tè, you will be given a badger of tea, but it would be an easy mistake to make, especially if you know the French word for cup, tasse, or the Spanish taza, or the German Tasse, which comes from the French, which comes from the Arabic طاس (ṭās – die; bowl), from the Persian تاس (tās – die/dice).

I also discovered the wonderful word owlful, which means full of badgers, or possibly full of owls. How awful it must be to be owlful! It’s a word that should have appeared in the Harry Potter books, which are brimful of owls at points, and slightly, though not entirely, badgerless.

Arabic, English, Etymology, French, German, Italian, Language, Persian (FarsI), Words and phrases 10 Comments

Language quiz

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

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

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I discovered the wonderful German word Sumpf /zʊmpf/ today while putting together les mots de la semaine for this week from the French conversation group. One of the things that came in conversation was the word marsh, which is le marais or le marécage in French, and Sumpf in German, which I noticed because there’s something about the combination of mpf in a word that just appeals to me. Are there particular letter combinations that appeal to you?

Sumpf means marsh, morass, mud, bog, quagmire, mire, sump, and can also be used figuratively to refer to corruption, e.g. der Sumpf der Politik = the murky waters of politics.

Related expressions include:

- Sumpfland = marshland; swampland
- sumpfig = marshy; swampland
- Sumpfboden = marshy ground
- sumpfen = to live it up
- Sumpfdotterblume = marsh marigold
- Sumpfpflanze = marsh plant
- Sumpfgas = marsh gas
- Salzsumpf = salt marsh

The word marsh comes from the Germanic base of mere (sea, lake), which is cognate with the Latin mare, and related words in many European languages; plus the suffix -ish (of or belonging to a person or thing, of the nature or character of).

Sources: Wiktionary, Reverso, OED, dictionary

English, Etymology, French, German, Language, Words and phrases 8 Comments

Playing and sounding

The other day I discovered that to play in Italian is giocare or divertirsi, but if you’re playing a musical instruments the word you need is suonare, which also means to ring, sound, strike or toot. So I can say, Suono la chitarra, il piano(forte), il mandolino, il flauto dolce e il fischietto. (I play the guitar, piano, mandolin, recorder and tin whistle.)

You can also use this verb to talk about striking clocks: l’orologio ha suonato le cinque (the clock struck five) and ringing phones: sta suonando il telefono (the phone is ringing). Also to talk about metaphorical sounds: Potrà suonare avventato, da un lato troppo aggressivo e dall’altro troppo ottimistico. (That may sound presumptuous, too aggressive for some, too optimistic for others.)

Related expressions include:

- fare suonare = to misuse, to over-use, to abuse
- suonare a morto = to knell
- suonare come ritornello = to reprise
- suonare per strada = to busk

In English you use play for both playing instruments and playing games, you can also play around while playing an instrument – how would you say that in Italian, or in other languages?

Welsh has chwarae as the general word for play and canu (to sing) for playing instruments, especially harps, though chwarae is also used for instruments.

In Mandarin there is 玩 (wán) for general play, while the words for playing instruments depend on the type of instrument: 拉 (lā), to pull, is used for bowed instruments such as violins and cellos; 吹 (chuī), to blow, is used for wind instruments; 弹 [彈] (tán), to pluck, is used for string instruments like guitars; 打 (dǎ), to beat/strike, is used for percussion instruments, and 演奏 (yǎnzòu) is a general word for playing an instrument or performing.

Do other languages has separate words for playing instruments and playing games?

Sources: Collins Italian Dictionary, dictionary

English, Etymology, Italian, Language, Welsh, Words and phrases 13 Comments

Language quiz

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

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

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Russian melancholy?

The other day I was trying to learn some adjectives in Russian, and noticed that there seemed to be more Russian words for sad (9) than for happy (4), at least in one dictionary I checked ( This might be a coincidence as in other dictionaries are more words for happy than for sad. In fact, combining the words together gives us nine words for happy and ten for sad.

Words for happy include:

- счастливый = happy (also: fortunate, lucky, providential, blessed)
- весёлый = happy (also: gay, cheery, fun, hilarious)
- довольный = happy (also: glad, pleased, amused, content)
- удачный = happy (also: successful, felicitous, chancy, fortunate)
- благополучный = happy (also: safe, trouble-free)
- ликующий = happy (also: jubilant, exultant, gleeful, elate, cookahoop, triumphant)
- радостный = happy (also: jolly, joyful, joyous glad, merry, cheery, high, gleeful, frabjous)
- удачливый = happy (also: lucky, successful, prosperous, fluky)
- улыбчивый = happy (also: smiling)

Words for sad include:

- прискорбный = sad (also: sorry, lamentable, regrettable, grievous)
- грустный = sad (also: melancholy, wailful, lamentable, minor)
- печальный = sad (also: down, sorrowful, deplorable, dolorous)
- тёмный = sad (also: dark, dirty, cimmerian, darksome)
- унылый = sad (also: moody, dreary, chap-fallen, cheerless)
- ужасный = sad (also: awful, horrible, terrible, dire)
- отчаянный = sad (also: desperate, foolhardy, hotshot, reckless)
- тусклый = sad (also: dim, gloomy, blear, bleary)
- тяжелый = sad (also: heavy, difficult, hard, grinding)
- досадный = sad (also: annoying, provoking, pesky, plaguesome, vexatious)

I wondered if this might reflect the reputed Russian melancholy nature of the Russian character. Do you think there’s anything in this?

Are all of these words in common use, or are some used more than others?

Even if this has no particular significance, it does illustrate the difficulty of choosing the right word when translating from one language to another.

Sources:, Reverso, EUdict

English, Language, Russian, Words and phrases 11 Comments


Klok / Bel (bell)

Last week I learnt an interesting Dutch word – klinken – which means to rivet, sound, ring, chime, toll, peal, knell, pledge, clink (glasses), (drink a) toast; to appear to be, seem, sound; and clinking. I particularly like the past tense forms of this word – klonk and geklonken.

Here are some examples of usage:

- die naam klinkt me bekend (in die oren) = that name sounds familiar to me
- dat klinkt mooi = that sounds nice
- het klonk me als muziek in de oren = it was music to my ears
- Waar hebben die woorden eerder geklonken? = Where have I heard those words before?

Here are some similar words and expressions:

- klink = (door)handle; latch
- klinker = brick; vowel
- medeklinker = consonant (also consonant)
- klinken op = to drink a toast to; to drink to; to toast
- laten klinken = to sound
- vals klinken (“to sound false”) = to jangle; to be off/out of key; to be/sound out of tune
- geklingel = jingle
- klingelen = to jingle; tinkle (also tingelen, rinkelen & kletteren)

The word vals in vals klinken can be translated as ‘false’, but also means mischievous, vicious, nasty, malicious and spurious. It can also be combined with spelen (to play) to make vals spelen – to cheat.

The English word clink possibly comes from klinken, and the clink, as a slang word for prison, comes from the prison in Southwark in London called The Clink, the name of which is possibly onomatopoeic and derives from the sound of metal doors being closed, or the rattling of the prisoners’ chains. The English words clonk and clunk are thought to be onomatopoeic in origin, while the word clank might come from the Dutch word klank, which means sound or tone.

What sounds do bells make in other languages?

Sources: Dictionary, vanDale,, SYSTRANet,, OED.

Dutch, English, Etymology, Language, Words and phrases 3 Comments

Language quiz

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

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

Language, Quiz questions 11 Comments


Tthe Dutch word buiten /ˈbœy̯.tə(n)/ is one I’ve heard quite a bit while listening to Dutch radio, and though I know what it means – outside; out of – I wasn’t sure where it came from. Today I discover that it is related to uit (out, from).

Buiten also means: villa, abroad, forth, apart from, besides, outdoors, except for, but, except, other than, peripheral, external, outer – so it’s quite a useful word.

Related words and expressions include:

- buiten adem = breathless
- buiten kennis/westen = unconscious
- buiten werking = out of order
- van buiten = by heart
- buitenkant = periphery, outskirts, surface, exterior
- buitenland = foreign country
- buitenspel = offside (football); sidelined
- buitenshuis = outdoors
- uitbuiten = to exploit, utilize, rack, vamp

One thing I like about Dutch is that many compound words are made up of native roots, which makes them easy to understand, as long as you know the meanings of the individual components. There are some loan words from other languages, such as French and English, but far fewer than in English, which has layers and layers of vocabulary from different languages (Anglo-Saxon, Norman, French, Latin, Greek, Old Norse, Dutch, etc).

For example, the relationship between hydrogen and water is not obvious in English, unless you know that hydrogen comes from the Ancient Greek ὕδωρ (hudōr – water) and γεννάω (gennaō – “I bring forth”). Hydrogen entered English via the French hydrogène, a term coined by Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau [source]. Whereas in Dutch hydrogen is waterstof (“water stuff”). Another water-related word in English is aquatic, which comes from Latin – in Dutch this is either aquatisch or waterhoudend / waterig, (houdend = having, keeping).

Dutch, English, Etymology, Language, Words and phrases 8 Comments


In a book I read recently (one of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series) I came across a number of Scots words that were unfamiliar to me. One that I particularly like is wirlie, which, according the Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL), means:

“a place where a field-wall crosses a stream; an opening in a wall to let running water pass through”.

An interesting meaning that I would never have guessed from the word or the context. It is apparently a Shetland word which comes from the Old Norse árhilð (á = river, hlið = an opening or gap in a fence), according to Shetland Words – A dictionary of the Shetland dialect.

If you came across this word, without knowing the above, what would you think it meant?

In some contexts it might be a euphemism for being drunk or confused – he was a bit wirlie.

Are there similar words in any other languages?

English, Etymology, Language, Scots, Words and phrases 3 Comments