Orbiting Ruts

One of the expressions that came up in the French conversation group yesterday was (être) coincé dans une ornière, which means (to be) stuck in a rut.

Coincé [kwɛ̃.se] means stuck, jammed,wedged, stranded, uptight, stuck up or close-minded. It appears in expressions like:

  • etre coincé = to be stuck (fast), to get stuck
  • etre coincé dans = to be marooned in
  • etre coincé entre = to be wedged between
  • etre coincé avec qn = to be stuck with sb
  • etre coincé avec qch = to be stuck with sth
  • rester coincé = to get stuck
  • La clé est coincée dans la serrure = The key is stuck in the lock
  • La porte est coincée = The door’s jammed
  • Il est un peu coincé = He’s a bit uptight

It comes from coincer (to jam, catch (out), nab, stick), which comes from coin (wedge, cornerpiece, corner, area, part, place, spot), from the Old French coin, from the Latin cuneus (wedge, wedge shape, troops in a wedge formation, an army), from the Proto-Indo-European *h₂ḱū (sting), which is also the root of such words as the English coin and cuneiform, the Irish cúinne (angle, corner, nook), the Welsh cŷn (chisel) and the Albanian kunj (peg, spike).

Ornière [ɔʁ.njɛʁ] is a rut, habit, routine or cart track, and appears in such expressions as;

  • suivre l’ornière = to be in a rut
  • sortir de l’ornière = to get out of a rut / spot
  • dans l’ornière = in a rut
  • dans une ornière = cornered
  • avec ornière = potholed

It comes from the Old French ordiere, from the Vulgar Latin *orbitaria, from the Latin orbita (a track or rut made by a wheel, path, track, circuit, orbit, impression, mark), form orbis (rind, circle, orbit).


Another way to say you’re stuck in a rut in French is s’encroûter, to get into a rut, to get set in one’s ways, to become encrusted (“to encrust onself”).

Sources: Reverso, Wiktionary


An interesting Dutch word I learnt yesterday was grasduinen [ˈɣrɑsˌdœy̯.nə(n)], which means to do something with relish, to enjoy working (on something), to enjoy searching (through, in), to delve (into something), to dabble or to browse (the internet) [source].

Grasduinen comes from grasduin (grassy dune) from and gras (grass) and duin (dune). So it literally means “to grassdune”, and grassy dunes were historically considered a delightful place, apparently. It is in fact a contraction of the phrase in grasduinen gaan (to go in the grassy dunes).

More about this expression (in Dutch).

Words with similar meanings to grasduinen include:

  • snuffelen = to snuffle, to sniff (around), to poke around, to search for something haphazardly [source]
  • rondsnuffelen = to sniff, snoop, poke around [source]
  • neuzen = to browse, peruse, snoop, peek, peep [source]
  • rondneuzen = to poke, snoop nose around, to look for something special [source]

Are there interesting words for browsing, snooping, sniffing around, etc in other languages?

Duinen bij Hargen

Endearing Bids

An interesting French word I learnt yesterday was enchère [ɑ̃.ʃɛʁ], which means a bid in an auction or sale, or in bridge (the card game) [source].

Enchère comes from enchérir, which means to make more expensive, to bid; to outbid, to make a bid (at auction); to go up (in price), to become more expensive.

Enchérir comes from cher (dear, dearly) plus a couple of affixes [source].

Cher means dear both in the sense of expensive, and in the sense of beloved, and dearly, as in payer cher (to pay dearly). It is also used to start letters.

Related words and expressions include:

  • faire une enchère = to (make a) bid
  • mettre aux enchères = to put up for auction
  • vente aux enchères = auction
  • enchère publique = public auction
  • renchérir sur = to add something to, to become more expensive
  • surenchéir = to outbid, to bid higher, to raise one’s bid, to try and outbid each other
  • enchérisseur, enchérisseuse = bidder
  • enchérissement = rise in cost, price surcharge

Encheres Voxan 100505 188

If you translate enchérir literally into English, you get to endear, which means to attach, attract, bind, captivate, charm, engage, win. Back in the 16th century, however, it meant to make (something) more precious or valuable, and then it came to mean to make (something) more expensive; to increase the cost of, or to stress (something) as important; to exaggerate [source].

The English word bid comes from the Middle English bidden (to ask, beseech, demand, comand), from the Old English biddan (to ask, demand), from the Proto-Germanic *bidjaną (to ask), from the Proto-Indo-European *gʷʰedʰ- (to request, pray, ask for) [source], which is also the root of the Welsh words gwaedd (to shout, cry), gweiddi (prayer) and gweiddïo (to pray).

Auction comes from the Latin auctiō (an increase, auction), from augere (to increase) [source]

What do you do?

What do you do?

Language courses usually have lessons that explain how to talk about your job / profession / work. The examples they give might include jobs like doctor, nurse, teacher, secretary, engineer, architect, writer, ninja, etc. These are all mentioned in lessons I’ve done on Duolingo (and other apps).

If you tell someone you’re a teacher or a doctor, they probably have at least some idea of what that entails. However, there are many jobs and other ways to make a living that are more difficult to define and explain, even in your native language. I’ve never come across a language lesson that includes unusual or difficult-to-define jobs like influencer, game tester, snuggler, bounty hunter or youtuber, for example.

Yesterday I was talking to a friend and he asked how my business is doing. I’ve told him what I do before, and have shown him Omniglot and explained what the site is about, but he thinks that it involves translation in some way. He’s not the only one to think this.

I wouldn’t usually call myself a translator or interpreter, although I did do a bit of translating and interpreting many years ago, mainly between Mandarin and English. These days I sometimes translate mysterious inscriptions and other bits of writing sent to me by Omniglot visitors, and occasionally help friends with translations, mainly between English and Welsh.

Sometimes I say that I’m a linguist. This usually leads to questions about which languages I speak and/or teach. I might try to explain what linguistics is all about and what I mean by linguist, but often I don’t bother. It depends on the situation.

I did teach English for a short while in Taiwan, and occasionally I teach people juggling and other circus skills. Does that make me a teacher? I don’t think so – I have no teaching qualifications, and only limited experience.

Sometimes I say that I’m a writer, and when they hear this, people assume that I write books and ask where they can find them. Maybe one day I will write books, but in the meantime I have written about more than 1,800 languages and writing systems, over 3,500 blog posts, and some silly dialogues and a short story that I’ve made into videos.

I could call myself a musician, singer-songwriter, composer and/or arranger as I have written 80+ songs and tunes. I do this because I enjoy it, and don’t earn anything from it. I share my songs and tunes online and with my friends, and occasionally perform in public.

Sometimes I say that I run my own company, or that I run a language-related business. This is true, but the company consists of just me. I am the director, secretary, marketing and sales department, and everything else.

On Twitter I call myself a Wordherder, Tunesmith and Gravityweaver.

When trying to explain this in other languages, I might just say that I’m a linguist, writer, translator, depending on which of these words I know in the relevant language. If I’m asked for more details, I direct people to Omniglot.

In case you’re not sure what I do, and how I make a living from it, you can read about it here, and/or listen to my podcast about it.

Do you have a difficult-to-define or unusual job or way to make a living?

Slurping Snorkels

I learnt today that an elephant’s trunk in Dutch is a slurf [slʏrf], not to be confused with a smurf. As I like the sound of it, I thought I’d write about it.

Slurf also means proboscis, or jetbridge – the long, flexible tube thing through which you board a plane – also known as a vliegtuigslurf (“aeroplane trunk”). It has another slangy meaning, but I won’t go into that here [source].

It comes from slurven, a variant of slurpen (to slurp) from the Middle Dutch slorpen/slurpen (to slurp), from the Old Dutch *slurpen, from the Proto-Germanic *slarpaną (to sip, slurp), from the Proto-Indo-European *srebʰ-/*srobʰ- (to sip, slurp, gulp). The English word slurp comes from the same root, via the Middle Dutch [source], as does the word absorb, via the Latin absorbeō (swallow up) [source].

Elephants are good swimmers and use their trunks as snorkels, a word that comes from the German Schnorchel, which is related to schnarchen (to snore). It refers both to snorkels used by swimmers to breath under water, and exhaust tubes on diesel submarines. The Dutch word for snorkel is snorkel, and was borrowed from English [source].

The English words snort and snark come from the same root as the German schnarchen: the Proto-Germanic *snarkōną (to snore, snort), from the Proto-Indo-European *(s)nerg- (to sound, murmur, growl) [source].

However, snore comes from the Middle English snoren/fnoren (to snore loudly; snort), from snore/*fnore (snore; snort), from the Old English fnora (snort; sneezing), from the Proto-Germanic *fnuzô, from the Proto-Indo-European *pnew- (to breathe; snort; sneeze) [source]. Sneeze comes from the same root, as do pneumatic, pneumonia and related words [source].


Whirling Dustsuckers

One of the Dutch words I learnt recently is stofzuiger [stɔfsœyɣər], or literally “dustsucker”. In English you might call it a vacuum, vacuum cleaner, hoover or even a dyson.

Stofzuiger comes from stof (dust) and zuigen (to suck, hoover, be bad at).

When I first learnt this word, I thought that stof might be related to stuff in English, so a Dutch vacuum cleaner would be a “stuffsucker”. However, stof is in fact two words in Dutch that have different meanings and come from different roots.

Stof as in dust comes from the Proto-Germanic *stubą, *stubjuz (dust), from the Proto-Indo-European *dʰeubʰ- (to whisk, smoke, obscure), from *dʰew- (to whirl, waft, stink, shake; steam, haze, smoke) [source].

Related words include:

  • huisstof = household dust
  • stofdoek = duster, dust cloth
  • stoffen = to dust, to remove dust from
  • stoffig = dusty
  • stofvrij = dustfree
  • stofwolk = dust cloud
  • stofzuigen = to vacuum / hoover
  • stofzuigerslang = vacuum cleaner hose (“dust-sucker-snake”)

The other stof means matter, material, substance, fabric or curriculum. It comes from the Middle Dutch stoffe, from the Old French estophe / estoffe, from estoffer (to decorate, garnish), from Old High German stoffōn (to stop, halt, stuff, insert), from the Proto-West Germanic *stuppōn (to cram, plug, stuff). The English word stuff comes from the same root.

Related words include:

  • afvalstof = waste product (“waste-stuff”)
  • brandstof = fuel (“burning-stuff”)
  • delfstof = mineral (“excavated-stuff”)
  • kleurstof = dye, colourant (“colour-stuff”)
  • koolstof = coal (“coal stuff”)
  • stikstof = nitrogen (“suffocating-stuff”)
  • voedingstof = nutrient (“food-stuff”)
  • waterstof = hydrogen (“water-stuff”)
  • zuurstof = oxygen (“sour-stuff”)

Are there interesting names for vacuum cleaners in other languages?

Henri stofzuiger