Yesterday I had my second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine (AstraZeneca), and feel just fine. So I thought I’d look at the origins of vaccine and related words.
Vaccine comes from the Latin word vaccīnus (of or derived from a cow), from vacca (cow), from the Proto-Indo-European *woḱéh₂ (cow) [source]. Why cows? Well, from 1796 to 1840, people were vaccinated against smallpox by being infect with cowpox (variola vaccīna), a much less serious virus – a procedure developed by Edward Jenner [source].
Some related words include:
immunisation / immunization = the process by which an individual is safely exposed in a controlled manner to a material that is designed to prime their immune system against that material. From the French immunisation. Coined by Albert Calmette (1863-1933), a French physician, bacteriologist and immunologist, who developed a vaccine against tuberculosis, and the first antivenom for snake venom [source]
inoculation = the introduction of an antigenic substance or vaccine into the body to produce immunity to a specific disease. From the Latin inoculātio (inoculation, ingrafting), from inoculō (I ingraft an eye or bud of one tree into another, inoculate, graft by budding, implant), from in- (in, within, inside) and oculus (eye) [source]
injection = the act of injecting, or something that is injected. From the Middle French injection, from Latin iniectio/injectiō (injection, inspiration, instillation), from iniciō (I throw, cast, hurl or place in), from in- (in, within, inside) and iaciō (throw, hurl) [source]
In the French conversation group I take part in, the word petit, which means small or little, is often mispronunced [pɛti] rather than [pə.ti], which annoys the founder of group. This might seem a rather petty thing to worry about, but pronunciation is quite important – not so much within the group, but for when we talk to actual native speakers of French.
Petit means small, little, minor, slight, short, mean, child, little one, youngest, young (of an animal).
Some related words and expressions include:
mon petit = dear (used ironically), son
ma petite = dear, young lady, sweetheart
les petits (enfants) = small children
les tout-petits = the little ones, the tiny tots, the toddlers
pauvre petit = poor little thing
faire des petits = to have kittens / puppies
petit à petit = little by little, gradually
petit ami = boyfriend
petit déjeuner = breakfast
petit doigt = little finger, pinky
petit-fils = grandson
petite amie = girlfriend
petit caisse = petty cash
petite-fille = granddaughter
petite phrase = catch phrase
petite sortie = stroll
Petit comes from the Vulgar Latin *pitittus (small, little), from *pit- or *pittus/*piccus (small, little), possibly from the Proto-Celtic *pett- (part, bit, piece) or from *bikkos (small, little) [source]. When I noticed the possible Celtic connection I decided to write this post, as such connections interest me a lot. The Proto-Celtic word *bikkos is the root of words for small in all the modern Celtic languages, such as bach in Welsh and beag in Irish. [More details].
The word petit also exists in English and is pronounced [ˈpɛti] or [pəˈtiː] in the UK, and [ˈpɛdi], [pəˈti] or [pəˈtit] in the American English. It means small, petty or minor [source]. In it’s feminine form, petite, it usually refers to a woman who is short and small.
Both petit and petite come from the Old French word petit (small, little, worthless, poor (quality)). Petit was used in surnames from 1086, and as an adjective meaning small, little, minor, trifling or insignificant, from the 14th century. Petite was used from the 18th century, at first to mean little or small in size, usually when referring to a woman or girl, and from the early 20th century it came to refer to a size of women’s clothing.
Petit became petty in most cases, except in certain expressions, such as petit bourgeois (conventional middle-class), petit mal (a mild form of epilepsy), petit four (small, fancy cake – see above) [source].
Petty originally meant small, little or minor. By the early 16th century it was being used to mean “of small or minor importance, not serious” and by the 1580s it came to mean “small-minded” [source].
If you are a petty person, or one who is mean or ungenerous in small or trifling things, you might have petty grievances, which are of little importance or consequence, and maybe a petty mind, or narrow ideas and/or interests, and you might like to take petty revenge. Maybe you are in charge of the petty cash (a cash fund for paying small charges), and you might be a a petty officer (a minor officer on a merchant ship, or a noncommissioned officer in the US Navy) [source].
A interesting French idiom I came across recently is rôtir le balai, which literally means “to roast the broom/brush”. Originally it meant to live in poverty – such poverty that your are reduced to burning your broom to keep warm. Later it came to mean “to lead a miserable life, or vegetate in mediocrity” and also “to live a life of debauchery” – usually when referring to a woman [source].
The word balai [ba.lɛ] means broom, broomstick, brush, or blade (of a windscreen wiper), and also is a slang term for years (of age) [source]. Some words and phrases it appears in include:
manche à balai = broomstick, joystick
balai-brosse = long-handled scrubbing brush
balai à franges = mop
balai éponge = squeezey mop
balai mécanique = carpet sweeper
coup de balai = sweep, shake-up
donner un coup de balai = to give the floor a sweep, to sweep up
fou comme un balai = very agitated, excited and/or anxious (“as crazy as a broom”)
du balai ! = hop it! shoo! push off!
Balai comes from the Old French balain (a bundle of broom twigs), from the Gaulish balatno (broom (shrub)) from the Proto-Celtic *banatlom (broom). Words from the same root include the Breton balan (broom), the Cornish banadhel (broom), the Welsh banadl (broom), the Spanish bálago (straw; Spanish broom (Spartium junceum) [source].
The broom shrub here is the common broom or Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), a perennial leguminous shrub native to western and central Europe, which can be used to make brooms (for sweeping) [source].
Incidentally, the Chinese character 妇 [婦] (fù), which means married woman, woman or wife, developed from pictograms of a woman and a broom. Originally the woman was on the right and the broom on the left, but at some point they switched sides source].
Yesterday I added details of a language called Akawaio (Ka’pon) to Omniglot. It’s a Cariban language spoken mainly in northern Guyana, and also in northern Brazil and eastern Venezuela, by about 6,380 people.
You may be wondering why I mention this. What’s so special about this language? Well, it just happens to be the 1,500th language I’ve written about on Omniglot, and it feels like a significant milestone to me. There are many more languages out there: 7,139, according to Ethnologue – so only another 5,639 to go! That should keep me busy for a while.
It’s becoming increasingly challenging to find information about languages that don’t yet appear on Omniglot. About 4,065 of the world’s languages have a written form, although many are rarely written, and the remaining 3,074 are probably unwritten [source]. There is little or no documentation for many languages, and what documentation there is can be difficult to find. Inspite of this, I will continue to add new language profiles to Omniglot, and appreciate any help you can offer.
I’ve been working on Omniglot on my own since 1998 – there are no minions or other assistants to help me. However, many other people have contributed to Omniglot, by sending me corrections, new material, suggestions, donations and so on, and I am profoundly grateful to all of them.
This is the 3,414th post I’ve written on this blog since launching it in March 2006. At first I tried to write something every day, but soon realised that was too much. At the moment I aim to write two posts a week, plus the language quiz on Sundays.
In April 2007 I started uploading videos to YouTube. Some of the videos feature silly little conversations in languages I’m learning. Others involve music-related events I’ve taken part in, and tunes and songs I’ve written. In 2021 I started uploading videos more regularly, particularly videos about words and etymology, and some songs as well. As well as the Adventures in Etymology videos I upload on Sundays, I plan to make videos featuring alphabets, phrases, etc in a variety of languages. Here’s one I made of the Danish alphabet:
In September 2018 I launched the Celtiadur, a blog where I explore connections between Celtic languages. This is based the Celtic cognates part of Omniglot. So far I’ve written 227 posts, and add a new one every week.
Since 1998 I’ve become fluent in Welsh and Irish, regained my fluency in French, maintained my fluency in Mandarin Chinese, more or less, and have learned enough Esperanto, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Spanish, Swedish, Danish and Dutch to have at least basic conversations. I’ve also learnt quite a bit of Russian and Czech, and some Romanian, Cantonese, Slovak, Slovenian, Serbian, Icelandic, Faroese, British Sign Language, Breton and Cornish.
I’m currently concentrating on Spanish, Swedish, Danish and Dutch, while trying to maintain my other languages, particularly French and Welsh. For the past 4 years or so I’ve studied languages every day on Duolingo – my current streak reached 1,369 today. I’ve also been using Mondly and Memrise. [More about my language learning adventures].
While not working on Omniglot or learning languages, I like to sing, play musical instruments and write songs and tunes. My musical adventures started long before Omniglot, but for many years after leaving school I only really listened to music. In 2005 I started going to Ireland every summer to learn Irish language, and also Irish songs, tunes and dances. This inspired me to take up music again. Since then I’ve learnt to play the guitar, mandolin, ukulele, cavaquinho and harp, and started playing the recorder, piano and tin whistle again. I’ve learnt songs in many different languages, and written quite a few songs and tunes.
Here’s a song I wrote in 33 different languages:
Enough of this shameless self-promotion. What about you? Have you reached any significant milestones recently?
An interesting expression that came up in my Dutch lessons recently is bakje troost [ˈbɑ.kjə troːst], which is slang for a cup of coffee, and a diminutive of bak troost. It could be translated literally as a “little cup of comfort” or a “little cup of solace”. It is also known as bakkie troost [source].
Here are some examples of how it’s used (from Reverso):
Hoe kom je hier aan een bakje troost? What do I have to do to get some more coffee around here?
Bakje troost voor ons Cup of Joe for the guys
Kijk eens aan, een bakje troost Here you go. Cup of joe
Bak means a bin, box, crate, tray or tub; a cup or mug; a jail, slammer or prison (slang), or a car. It comes from the French word bac (ferry, vat), from the Old French bas/bac (flat boat), possibly from the Vulgar Latin *baccu (container), from the Latin bacar (kind of wine glass). Or from a Celtic or Germanic word [source].
Some related words include:
afvalbak = rubbish bin, trashcan, dustbin
bloembak = flower pot, planter, window box, flower tub
engelenbak = the highest box at a theatre (“angel box”)
glasbak = bottle bank
ragbak = a run-down car
Troost means comfort or consolation. It comes from the Middle Dutch troost, from the Old Dutch trōst, from the Proto-Germanic *traustą (shelter, help, aid, trust, confidence, alliance), from *traustaz (firm, strong), from thge Proto-Indo-European *deru-/*drew-/*drū- (to be firm, hard, solid, tree) [source].
The English words trust and tryst come from the same Germanic root, as do the German word Trost (consolation), the Swedish word tröst (comfort, consolation, dummy / pacifier), and related words in other languages [source].
This week some of the lockdown restrictions were lifted here in Wales, and cafés are open again, at least for takeaways. Yesterday I saw a long queue of people outside a café, probably waiting for their bakjes troost.
In the beforetimes I did go to cafés now and then for a cup of hot chocolate or herbal/fruit tea, maybe a pastry, and a change of scenery. This is something I miss a bit, but as I don’t drink coffee and rarely drink tea, I have no craving for caffeine, and won’t be queueing outside any cafés.
According to research carried out by Preply, the countries with the best language learning environments are Luxembourg, Sweden, Cyprus, Malta, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, Slovenia, Spain and Estonia.
Their Worldwide Language Index was compiled from analyzing data from 30 European countries, plus the USA, on such factors as the number of official languages, the degree of multilingualism, language learning in schools, the level of competence in foreign languages, access to language learning technology, and whether TV and films are subtitled or dubbed.
Overall, Luxembourg scored hightest, so if you grew up in Luxembourg, you are more likely to be successful in learning several languages. Are there any Luxembourgers reading this? Would you agree with this?
Luxembourg has three official languages: Luxembourgish, German and French, and education is in all three languages. English is also taught in schools, and students can choose to learn Italian, Spanish, Portuguese or Chinese. In addition, some classes are taught in Portuguese or English for the children of immigrants [source].
In terms of individual factors, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Malta, Spain, Austria, Hungary, France, Latvia, Poland, Italy, Sweden and Croatia all score highly for language learning in school. The countries with the highest level of command of the best known foreign languages include Luxembourg, Sweden and Malta.
The UK only scores highly in the Subtitles, Dubbing and Voiceover category, and the USA scores highly in language diversity.
What this study didn’t look at, as far as I can tell, is whether these countries are also good places to learn languages if you’re from elsewhere. It would be interesting to see how well each country teaches their local language(s) to immigrants or visitors interested in learning them.
Note: this post is sponsored by Preply, an online learning platform, connecting a global network of tens of thousands of active learners and 15,000 verified tutors to study and teach over 50 languages.
The French expression faire un bœuf (“doing a beef/ox”) means to jam or have a jam session. A jam (session) can happen at any time when musicians get together and jam, or play and/or sing in an informal or improvised way.
Why do they say faire un bœuf though? What does improvising music have to do with oxen or beef?
Well, it comes from Le Boeuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof), a celebrated Parisian cabaret-bar founded in 1921 by Louis Moysés. In the 1920s and 30s especially, it was popular with musicians and singers, and improvised jam sessions often broke out there. Such activities have been known as bœufs ever since. The bar still exists, but is now a fancy restaurant and apparently no longer has the glamour, social cachet and bohemian atmosphere that it once had [source].
It is not known why we call such activities jam sessions in English. Apparently jam was first used in this way in the 1920s among jazz musicians. Possibly because it involves muscians getting together in one place, e.g. jamming themselves into a room. Or jam might refer to something sweet or a nice treat, which was one meaning of the word that emerged in the 19th century [source].
I’ve played instruments and/or sung in jam sessions in pubs, boats, trains, churches, vineyards, gardens, community centres, castles, fields, airports, mountains and other places. There are always great fun and I miss them.
Here’s a video from a folk music session that used to happen in Tafarn Y Glob, a pub in Bangor, and will start again one of these days, hopefully:
Are there interesting ways to refer to jam sessions in other languages?
If you are in the eye of the storm you are in the center or most intense part of a tumultuous situation, or literally in the calm region at the centre of a storm, hurricane, cyclone or typhoon [source].
In French equivalents of the eye of the storm include l’oeil du cyclone (the eye of the cyclone), l’œil de la tempête (the eye of the storm) and le cœur de la tempête (the heart of the storm) [source].
The French word tempête (storm, tempest), and the English word tempest both come from the Old French tempeste (storm, tempest), from the Latin tempesta (storm, tempest), from tempestās (storm, tempest, weather, season) from tempus (time, weather), from the Proto-Indo-European *tempos (stretch) [source].
The French word temps (time, weather), comes from the same root, as does the Spanish word tiempo (time, weather), Italian word tempo (time, weather) and related words in other languages.
The expression a tempest in a teapot, meaning ‘a small event that has been exaggerated out of proportion’, dates from 1818, and is apparently the American English equivalent of the British English storm in a teacup. Before then the equivalent was a storm in a creambowl, which dates from the 1670s [source]. Other versions of this phrase include a tempest/storm in a glass of water and a storm in a wash-hand basin [source].
In French you could talk about une tempête dans un verre d’eau (a storm in a glass of water)
In French if you don’t speak a langauge very well, you are said to speak it “like a Spanish cow”, or “comme une vache espagnole” [source]. For example:
Il parle anglais comme une vache espagnole He speaks English like a Spanish cow
Elle parle français comme une vache espagnole She speaks French like a Spanish cow
This expression was first used in writing in the 17th century, and possibly referred to vasces, that is Gascons or Basques, rather than vaches, or cows. At the time, Basque people from Spain probably didn’t speak French very well. Or it might come from basse (servant, maid), or from the use of comme une vache as an insult. Also, calling people and things espagnole (Spanish) was also an insult at the time [source].
In English you might say that someone speaks broken English or bad English, or that they butcher or murder English. Although, as the American author H. Jackson Brown Jr. says “Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language” [source].
You could make up other ways to say you speak a language badly:
I speak Russian like a Pavlovian pig
I speak Czech like a Bohemian badger
I speak Romanian like a Ruritanian rabbit
Are there idioms in other languages to refer to people speaking them badly, or indeed well?
Over the past year, and before, we’ve often been told that we’re all “in the same boat”, at least in the UK. The intention is to suggest that we are all in a similar situation or predicament, and the expression is often used by those in positions of power, wealth and privilege.
The idea of being in the same boat meaning ‘having the same fate’ first appeared in writing in 1584 in Thomas Hudson’s translation of Du Bartas’ Historie of Judith:
haue ye paine ? so likewise paine haue we :
For in one bote we both imbarked be.
Vpon one tide, one tempest doeth vs tosse,
Your common ill, it is our common losse.
It appeared more or less in the current form in writing by Thomas Taylor, a British cleryman in 1629. He said:
He is in the same boate which is tossed and threatned with the tempest, and is someway interessed in the common cause, and quarrell.
In other languages, such as Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Japanese, you can talk about being in the same boat. Are there any languages in which this idea is referred to without mentioning boats?