All mouth and no trousers

The idiom all mouth and no trousers came up last night at the French conversation group. We were actually looking for a French equivalent of all fur coat and no knickers and couldn’t find one, but did find an equivalent of all mouth and no trousers, which has a somewhat similar meaning.

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, to be all mouth and no trousers is to “tend to talk boastfully without any intention of acting on one’s words, while all fur coat and no knickers means to “have an impressive or sophisticated appearance which belies the fact that there is nothing to substantiate it” [source].

According to Wiktionary all mouth and no trousers comes from northern England, was originally all mouth and trousers, and refers to someone who is “superficial, engaging in empty, boastful talk, but not of real substance.” Apparently a US equivalent is all hat and no cattle, and there are many other idioms with the same meaning:

  • all bark and no bite
  • all bluff and bluster
  • all crown, no filling
  • all foam, no beer
  • all hammer, no nail
  • all icing, no cake
  • all shot, no powder
  • all sizzle and no steak
  • all talk
  • all talk and no action
  • all wax and no wick
  • all show, no go

An equivalent in Welsh is pen punt a chynffon dima (“pound head and halfpenny tail”). Are there similar idioms in other languages?

English, French, Language, Welsh 3 Comments


Recently I’ve been learning Serbian, Russian and Czech with free apps produced by Hallberg Ryman, who make them for quite a variety of languages for Andriod and iPhone/iPad. They are working well for me and I would definitely recommend them.

They use a flashcard/SRS-based system to teach you vocabulary arranged into categories such as numbers, colours, clothing, food, etc. Within each category you learn individual words, and then see them in various sentences, which you’re tested on by filling in blanks, or by assembling sentences from a bunch of random words.

One blank filling exercise involves typing the missing words – in the other you just select the words – and I find this the most difficult, especially for Russian. It is also the most useful because I have to think about spelling and the grammar.

The other day I was doing a lesson on colours in Czech and in the typing exercise was having trouble remembering the endings for each word. I tried to memorise them for each sentence, but found this tricky, then I thought that there must be a pattern to them. I soon realised that they were agreeing with the gender of the nouns they accompanied. Once I spotted the pattern, it was easy to remember and apply it. I’m sure this aspect of Czech grammar has come up before in my Czech studies, but I hadn’t internalised it. Now that I’ve worked it out for myself through observation and experiment, I won’t forget it.

When learning grammar, are you able to take it in and remember it just from grammatical descriptions, or do you need to see lots of examples?

Czech, English, Grammar, Language, Language learning, Russian, Serbian 1 Comment

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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Mochyn yn mochi (A pig wallowing)

Yesterday I came across an interesting Welsh word in one of my Welsh dictionaries (Y Geiriadur Mawr) – mochi [‘mɔxɪ] – which means “ymdrybaeddu fel moch / to wallow as swine”. It comes from moch (pigs), the singular of which is mochyn, from the Proto-Celtic *mokkus (pig), which probably comes from a non-Indo-European root [source].

In English the equivalent of mochi is to pig, which means “(of a sow) to give birth; to live in squalor (also ‘to pig it’); or to devour (food) greedily (also ‘to pig out, to pig oneself, to make a pig of oneself’)” [source]. None of these has quite the meaning of the Welsh word though.

Are there words or phrases in other languages similar to mochi?

The English word pig comes from the Middle English pigge (pig, pigling), which referred a young pig / piglet – adult pigs were known as swine [source], which comes from the Old English swīn (pig, hog, wild boar), from the Proto-Germanic *swīną (swine, pig), from the Proto-Indo-European *sū- (pig), which is also the root of sow (female pig) [source].

Another pig-related word in English is pork (pig meat), which comes from the Middle English pork/porc, via Anglo-Norman from the Old French porc (swine, hog, pig, pork), from the Latin porcus (domestic hog, pig), from Proto-Indo-European *porḱ- (young swine, young pig), which is cognate with the Old English fearh (young pig, hog), and the root of farrow. [source].

Comparing someone to a pig is generally an insult in English – e.g. You eat like a pig! Dirty pig! etc. Also ‘the pigs’ is a slang term for the police. What about in other languages?

English, Etymology, Language, Proto-Indo-European, Welsh, Words and phrases 3 Comments

Byd bach (Small world)

Yesterday I met some Russians who are in Bangor for Celtic-Slavic language conference. They both speak Welsh and one of them teaches Welsh in Moscow. We got chatting, mainly in Welsh, and it turned out that they know friends of mine who are studying or doing research in Aberystwyth, and they also know Russians I met while studying Irish in Donegal in Ireland. The world of Celtic studies is quite small, and the world of Slavo-Celtic studies is even smaller, so these connections weren’t a great surprise.

One advantage of learning lesser-studied languages like Welsh and Irish is that you can become part of relatively small communities of learners, and can possibly become part of small native speaker communities as well. People who learn such languages come from many different countries, so while the languages themselves may only be spoken in particular parts of particular countries, by learning them you can become part of a world-wide community of learners. So if you meet other learners or native speakers on your travels, it’s quite likely that they will know some of the same people you know. At the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin, for example, I met a Swedish guy who has studied Irish in Donegal, and found we had friends and acquaintances in common.

There are also links between different minority and endangered language communities. For example, Manx-speaking musicians, singers and dancers regularly take part in inter-Celtic festivals, such as the annual one in Lorient in Brittany, and have contacts with Sámi-speaking communities in Norway, and with Jèrriais speakers in Jersey.

English, Irish, Language, Welsh Leave a comment


The word interesting can have a variety of meanings, depending on how you say it and the context in which you use it. At least it does in British English.

The basic definition is “inspiring interest; absorbing” [source]. It comes from the noun interest (legal claim or right; concern; benefit, advantage), from the Anglo-French interesse (what one has a legal concern in), from the Medieval Latin interesse (compensation for loss), from the Latin verb interresse (to concern, make a difference, be of importance, or literally “to be between”), from inter- (between) and esse (to be) [source].

If you are asked your opinion on something, such as a film, play, concert, etc, that you didn’t like or enjoy, you might, if you’re British and don’t want to be negative, describe it as “interesting” and maybe praise an aspect of it that did appeal to you. Maybe you liked the costumes, the venue, the lighting, or whatever. You could also use this description for a person, place, thing or other event. This could be taken at face value, or as indirect criticism, if you read between the lines – damning with faint praise. This shouldn’t be confused with typical British understatement.

Other words you might use to describe something you didn’t like or enjoy include different, challenging and unusual. Do you have any others?

Is interesting used in this way in other varieties of English? How are equivalent words used in other languages?

English, Etymology, French, Language, Latin, Words and phrases 2 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 6 Comments

Churches and Cells

Today I discovered that the Welsh word llan (church, parish), which is used mainly in place names, such as Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, has cognates in the other Celtic languages: lann in Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish and Manx, and lan in Breton. These words all come from the Proto-Indo-European root *lendʰ- (land, heath) [source].

Another word church-related word that is used mainly in Irish and Scottish place names is kil(l), as in Kildare (Cill Dara), Kilkenny (Cill Chainnigh) and Kilmarnock (Cill Mheàrnaig). It means church or graveyard and comes from the Irish cill (cell (of a hermit), church, burial place), from the Old Irish cell (church), from the Latin cella [source] (a small room, a hut, barn, granary; altar, sanctuary, shrine, pantry), which comes from the Proto-Indo-European *ḱelnā, which is made up of *ḱel- (to cover) and a suffix -nā.

The Welsh word cell (cell); the Scottish Gaelic cill (chapel, church yard, hermit’s cell); the Manx keeill (church, cell); and the Breton kell (cell) all come from the same root.

The more commonly-used words for church in the Celtic languages are: eglwys (Welsh), eaglais (Irish and Scottish Gaelic), eglos (Cornish), iliz (Breton) and agglish (Manx). These all come from the Latin ecclēsia (church), from the Ancient Greek ἐκκλησία (ekklēsía – church).

Breton, Cornish, English, Etymology, Irish, Language, Proto-Indo-European, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Words and phrases 7 Comments

High Stones

A photo of Harlech castle and town

I spent yesterday in Harlech [ˈharlɛx] with a friend looking round the castle, exploring the village and wandering along the beach. We wondered where the name Harlech comes from, so I thought I’d find out. According to Wikipedia, there are two possible sources: from the Welsh ardd (high; hill) llech (stone) or from hardd (beautiful) llech (stone). Apparently it was referred to as ‘Harddlech’ up until the 19th century in some texts, so the second derivation might be more likely.

The word ardd is not used in modern Welsh – high is usually uchel and hill is bryn. There are cognates in the other Celtic languages: arth (hill) in Cornish; arz (high) in Breton; ard (head; ascent; incline; high; height; senior; advanced) in Irish; àrd (high, lofty, tall; great; loud; chief, eminent, superior, supreme) in Scottish Gaelic; and ard (high, towering, tall, big, loud, height, high place, fell, incline) in Manx.

These all come from from the Proto-Celtic *ardwos (high), from the Proto-Indo-European *h₁rh₃dh-wo- (high, steep), which is also the root of the Latin words arduus (lofty, high, steep, tall, elevated) and arbor (tree, mast, javelin), the Ancient Greek word ὀρθός (orthós – straight), the English word arduous, [source].

Breton, English, Etymology, Irish, Language, Manx, Proto-Indo-European, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, 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 5 Comments