Hebrew phrases

Yesterday I received an email telling me that there shouldn’t be Hebrew versions of Merry Christmas and Happy Easter among the Hebrew phrases on my site as,

“the Hebrew language is a holy language” and that “if you say Happy Easter, or Merry Christmas in Hebrew you pretty much burn to death in the spot if you’re a Jew.”.

He also states that,

“Most of the people who will be reading your Hebrew section are either Jewish and will be offended, or will think they can say those things to Jewish people, and they will offend the Jewish people they speak to.”

I’m aware that Jews do not celebrate Christmas or Easter, and that the majority of people who speak Hebrew are Jews. However I understand that there are around 350,000 Hebrew-speaking Christians in Israel [source] who probably do celebrate these festivals and use these phrases – I’ve added a note to the Hebrew phrases page along these lines. I’ve had similar comments about the Somali versions of these phrases.

Do you think that my correspondent is right about this?

English, Hebrew, Language 10 Comments

Haps and Mishaps

A mishap is “an unlucky accident”, according to the Oxford Dictionaries, and is often accompanied by the word minor – e.g. we had a few minor mishaps in the kitchen, but at least we didn’t burn the chicken.

I happened upon the word mishap today and it got me wondering whether the word hap also exists. It does, though it rarely used these days, as far as I can tell.

Hap means:

– luck, fortune
– a chance occurrence, especially an event that is considered unlucky
– to come about by chance
– to have the fortune or luck to do something.

So it’s a contronym or auto-antonym in that it can mean good luck and the opposite, bad luck.

Here are some examples:

– If you have the good hap to come into their houses
– I entertained the Company with the many Haps and Disasters
– What can hap to him worthy to be deemed evil?
– Where’er I happ’d to roam

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

Hap, mishap, and happen and happy, all come from the Old Norse word happ (chance, good luck), from the Proto-Germanic *hap-/*hampą (convenience, happiness), from the Proto-Indo-European *kob- (to suit, fit, succeed), which is also the root of the Old Irish cob (victory) and the Russian кобь [kob’] (fate).

Source: Online Etymology Dictionary and Wiktionary

English, Etymology, Language, Old Norse, Proto-Indo-European, Russian, Words and phrases 2 Comments


A puffling

The other day I discovered that a young puffin is known as a puffling, which I really like the sound of.

There are a few other words that include the -ling suffix that are commonly used: sibling, duckling, underling, earthling, seedling, yearling (an animal that is between one and two years old) – can you think of others?

There are plenty more on Wiktionary, though few are in common use, as far as I know.

English, Language, Words and phrases 5 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 8 Comments

The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct

According to an article I came across yesterday the idea that language is an instinct or that there is some kind of language organ in the brain is unlikely to be true. Vyvyan Evans, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University, argues that,

“Our brains really are ‘language-ready’ in the following limited sense: they have the right sort of working memory to process sentence-level syntax, and an unusually large prefrontal cortex that gives us the associative learning capacity to use symbols in the first place. Then again, our bodies are language-ready too: our larynx is set low relative to that of other hominid species, letting us expel and control the passage of air. And the position of the tiny hyoid bone in our jaws gives us fine muscular control over our mouths and tongues, enabling us to make as the 144 distinct speech sounds heard in some languages. No one denies that these things are thoroughly innate, or that they are important to language.”

He explains that if language were an instinct, children would just know it once their language organ had been tuned to the specific parameters of their mother tongue(s). However it takes children several years of trial and error to grasp the intricacies of language, and they don’t usually generalise patterns they spot to all relevant words straight away. For example, a child might notice that some words have a different form when you’re talking about more than one of something, and they might only apply that change to words they know already at first. Later they might apply it to all nouns, even ones with irregular endings, and eventually they will learn the irregular forms as well.

Another aspect of the language gene/instinct argument is the idea that underlying all languages are a set of universal attributes – the universal grammar. However since this idea was proposed, more and more unusual language structures have been discovered that don’t fit the model, and one of the few elements that remains is recursion – the way sentences can be embeded within other sentences. Even that is questioned as at least one language, Pirahã (híaitíihí), possibly manages without it.

Professor Evans also argues that if there were a language organ, it would have to be passed on via DNA, and that this is unlikely given the complexity needed for such an organ, based on our current understanding of how DNA works. Genes and parts of the brain that were thought to be specific for language, or aspects of language, have been found to be involved in auditory processing or motor control.

You can read more on this in the book The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct.

Have you read the book? What is your take on this?

English, Language, Linguistics 1 Comment

You lucky sausage!

According to a friend who lives in Manchester, a common expression there is “You lucky sausage!”, which is used when someone has some (unexpected) good luck. For example, if you won a prize in a competition, your friends might say, “You lucky sausage you!”.

I hadn’t heard this expression before and neither has anybody else my friend asked from outside Manchester, so maybe it’s only used there. It doesn’t seem to be very common online as it only gets 666 results in Google. Does anyone from Manchester, or elsewhere, use this phrase?

A related phrase I am familiar with is “You silly sausage!” – a light-hearted and affectionate insult used when someone, especially a child, has done or said something foolish or silly.

Do you use this phrase, or have you heard it used?

If not, would you say something else in such circumstances?

English, Language, Words and phrases 5 Comments

Merched Nadolig

Last Saturday I was chatting with a Czech friend in Welsh and describing a recent trip to London. One of the things I mentioned was visiting the Christmas market in Hyde Park, although instead of saying marchnad Nadolig (Christmas market) I said merched Nadolig (Christmas girls/women), much to my friend’s amusement. I realised my mistake almost immediately, but we spent the rest of the day joking about merched Nadolig. There might possibly have been some interference from the Spanish word for market, mercado, in my head, though I haven’t been using much Spanish recently.

Do you sometimes get similar-sounding words mixed up like this?

English, Language, Welsh 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 7 Comments



I came across an interesting word in one of the books I read recently – snickerdoodles. From the context I guessed that they are something you eat, but wasn’t sure what. I now know that a snickerdoodle is a type of cookie made with butter or oil, sugar, and flour rolled in cinnamon sugar that is characterized by a cracked surface. They are possibly German in origin and their name may come from the wonderful German word Schneckennudel (“snail noodles”), a kind of pastry. Alternatively snickerdoodle might be a nonsense word from the New England tradition of giving cookies whimsical names [source].

Do you know of any other whimsical names for cookies or other food?

Language 4 Comments


A interesting word that comes up sometimes in American books I read is noogie [ˈnʊɡi], which is used in the context of one person giving someone else a noogie. The people involved are usually kids, and it sounds like a somewhat unpleasant experience, though until I looked it up, I didn’t know exactly what the word meant. It isn’t used in the UK, as far as I know.

According to Merriam-Webster, a noogie is “the act of rubbing your knuckles on a person’s head to cause annoyance or slight pain”. The origins of the word are unknown, and it first appeared in print in 1972.

Are noogies used outside the USA? Are there other words for this practice in other countries?

English, Language, Words and phrases 5 Comments