Big Cheesy Smiles

big cheese / le stort

If you’re a ‘big cheese‘, you’re an important, successful, or influential person, and/or you have an important and powerful position in an organization. Alternatively you might be called, or call yourself, a big fish, big gun, big noise, big shot, or big wheel [source].

Apparently the word cheese was used in the 19th century to mean something that was good, genuine, pleasant or advantageous. In John Camden Hotten’s The Slang Dictionary of 1863 it is defined as:

Cheese, anything good, first-rate in quality, genuine, pleasant, or advantageous, is termed the cheese. The London Guide, 1818, says it was from some young fellows translating “c’est une autre chose” into “that is another cheese.” But the expression cheese may be found in the Gipsy vocabulary, and in the Hindostanee and Persian languages. In the last chiz means a thing—that is the thing, i.e., the cheese.

In Urdu چیز (cheez) does mean thing [source]. The same word in Persian (Farsi) means article, entity, item, matter, object, stuff or thing [source]. In Hindi चीज (cīj) means thing, matter, object or concern [source].

Some other interesting cheese-related from the The Slang Dictionary include:

Cheese, or cheese it (evidently a corruption of cease), leave off, or have done; “cheese your barrikin,” hold your noise. Term very common.

Cheesecutter, a prominent and aquiline nose. Also a large square peak to a cap. Caps fitted with square peaks are called cheesecutter caps.

Cheesy, fine or showy. The opposite of “dusty.”

Nowadays the meaning of cheesy has changed a bit, and means “vulgarly pretentious or sentimental”, “banal, trite or in poor taste” or “inferior, cheap and shoddy” [source].

The expression big cheese first appeared in O. Henry’s 1910 novel Unprofessional Servant in which it meant ‘wealth or fame’. The meaning of an important person first appears in The Olean Evening Times in June 1922 as, “The big mayor of Olean fair, You’re the big cheese on the scene.” [source].

In Swedish the equivalent of a big cheese is le stort, or a ‘big smile’, which certainly makes me smile.

What about in other languages?

Coronavirus – what the heck does it mean?

Today we have a guest post by Manish Sharma

We have all heard this word a lot lately and some of us are probably getting quite sick of it. Hopefully, not by it though. Have you wondered what does it actually mean though?

Let’s do an etymological analysis of coronavirus and see what we come up with. Do what? I hear you say! Fret not, it’s just a fancy way of saying what the word means and how it came to be.

Well, let’s see what we have here then.

So we know it’s clearly made up of two words: corona + virus. Well done, Sherlock! Is that it? What are you going to tell us next? That it’s caused by drinking too much Corona beer? Sadly, no, because there would have been a rather easy cure for it if that was true!

Beer (excuse the pun) with me though while I break it down for you.

Corona comes from the Latin word corōna, meaning a ‘crown’ or ‘garland’, which in turn is borrowed from the Greek word κορώνη (korṓnē), which means a ‘garland’ or a ‘wreath’ [source]. I guess something to do with the similarities in shape. It’s used to describe this class of viruses because of their peculiar structure, as we have all seen in the photos everywhere, the virus looks like a spherical ball with spike-like projections on its surface giving it an appearance of a crown. Not unlike the way solar flares project from the surface of the sun hence called solar corona.

Coronavirus

The Greek word κορώνη (korṓnē) has its origin in a Proto Indo-European or PIE (a hypothesised common ancestor of most of the Indian and European languages) word *ker or *sker which is the origin of the Sanskrit word कृत्त (kṛttá) or the Hindi word कट (kat), both meaning to ‘cut’ something. Incidentally, English words like, curtailed, shears, scissors, short, skirt and share have all descended from this same root [source].

A note on the relation between the words *ker and *sker before we move on. The prefix ‘s’ (s-mobile) sometimes occurs in the variations of the same word in different languages. For instance, the English word snake and Hindi word नाग (nāg) also share a common root – the Proto-Indo-European *sneg- (to crawl, a creeping thing) [source].

The word virus comes from the Latin word vīrus meaning poison, venom or slime. Same indeed as the Greek word ἰός (iós – poison, venom), which itself has descended from the PIE word *wisós (fluidity, slime, poison). Anybody who knows the Hindi or Sanskrit translation of the word poison or venom would have probably figured out where this is going. The Hindi word विष (viṣ – poison, venom) and the Sanskrit विष (viṣá – poison, venom), come from the same root as the word virus [source]. Fascinating, eh?

When you put the two together, you get coronavirus, or poison cut in the shape of a crown!

So, there you have it. We may not know for sure where this wretched virus came from but at least we now have an idea how its name came about.

Hope you enjoyed reading.

Bittersweet

Chutney

When looking for the French word for chutney last night we discovered the word aigre (sour), and realised that vinegar, or vinaigre in French, must be wine (vin) that is sour (aigre). This is indeed the origin of vinegar and vinaigre.

Vin (wine) comes from the Latin vīnum (wine, grapes, grapevine), from Proto-Italic *wīnom (wine), from Proto-Indo-European *wóyh₁nom (wine).

Aigre (sour, sharp, acid, shrill) comes from the Old French, from Vulgar Latin *acrus / *acrum, from the Classical Latin acer / acrem (sharp, sour, bitter), from Proto-Italic *akris (sharp, sour), from Proto-Indo-European *h₂ḱrós (sharp).

Chutney is a sauce made from fruit and/or vegetables preserved with vinegar and sugar. The word comes from the Hindi चटनी (catnī / chatnee – to lick). In French it is chutney, épice or salade piquante, and is defined as “condiment aigre-doux” (bittersweet condiment), which is where I found the word aigre.

Special offer from Rocket Languages

Rocket languages

This week Rocket Languges are celebrating their 13th Anniversary with a 4-day sale starting today and continuing until Friday 17th March, or until they’ve sold 1,000 courses.

During this time you can get 60% off any of their online language courses, which include: French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese (Mandarin), German, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, Hindi, ASL, Korean, Portuguese and English (for Spanish or Japanese speakers).

The coupon code to receive the discount is ANNIVERSARY

They also offer online piano courses, in case you fancy a break from your language studies.

I have tried and reviewed their Hindi and Japanese courses, and think they are definitely worth a look. Since then they have added some new languages – Russian and Portuguese – and I’m tempted to try their Russian course, even though I already have plenty of other Russian courses and learning materials. Can you ever have too many language learning materials?

Note: I am a Rocket Languages affiliate, and will receive commission if you buy any of the courses via the links above.

Reflections on the Polyglot Gathering

Polyglots dancing at the Slaughterhouse in Berlin

I got back from the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin late on Monday night. I travelled by train the whole way, which is a bit more expensive than the plane, and takes a few hours longer, but I prefer to travel this way, and you see more. The journey went smoothly, apart from the train from London, which was an hour late getting into Bangor. Fortunately I got a partial refund on my ticket. On the Eurostar I talked to a interesting lady from Vancouver, and on the train to Bangor I talked, mainly in Welsh, to a doctor from Felinheli.

This year’s Gathering was as much fun as previous years – it was my third. I arrived in Berlin quite late on Wednesday evening the day before it officially started, and missed out on most of the polyglot games that were going on in the afternoon and evening. Next year I might arrive a day or two before the start to give me a chance to explore more of Berlin – this year I spent most of my time in the venue and didn’t go exploring.

Over the next four days I learnt about many things, including Portuguese-based creoles, Greek, minimalism, Sardinian languages and dialects, why many language learners don’t acquire native-like accents, metaphors in native Canadian languages, language mentoring, how musical techniques can be applied to language learning, the stagecraft of multilingualism, and much more. I got to know old friends better, met lots of new ones, and I spoke lots of different languages. My talk on Manx went well, as did the introduction to Welsh that I helped with.

The talks were mainly in English, with some in French, Italian, German, Esperanto, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, Indonesian, and in various combinations of these.

Between us we polyglots speak quite a few different languages. The most common (i.e. those with quite a few speakers / learners) include English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, Romanian, Esperanto, German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Russian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Serbian, Greek, Finnish, Hungarian, Welsh, Irish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Malay, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Swahili. There were also speakers and learners of Wolof, Punjabi, Hindi, Marathi, Romani, Tamil, Latin, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish, Breton, Sardinian, Luxembourgish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Slovenian, Albanian, Basque, Tagalog, Turkish, Navajo, Toki Pona, Klingon, and probably other languages.

I’m looking forward to the next polyglot event – the North American Polyglot Symposium in Montreal in July. I’ll be doing a talk on the origins of language there, so should get working on it.

Some things I learnt from the Gathering

There are many ways to learn languages, and no single way will work for everyone. Some like to focus on one language at a time until they have reached a level they are happy with, then move on to the next language; others like to study many different languages at the same time. Some learn grammar and vocabulary first, then learn to speak; others start using their languages straight away, or soon after they start studying. Some like to study on their own; others like to study in a class and/or with a private tutor. Some combine many of the above and more, to varying degrees – I certainly do.

From Malachi Rempen’s talk on cartooning, minimalism and language learning (Less is More: What Silly Doodles Can Teach Us About Fluency), I learnt that you can do a lot with a little. He showed how he can make his Itchy Feet character express a wide variety of emotions with just a few lines, and suggested that the same can be applied to languages – you can communicate even if you know only a little of a language. He also argued that fluency means different things to different people, and might not be the best thing to aim for.

Tim Keeley, professor of Cross-Cultural Management at Kyushu Sangyo University in Fukuoka, explained that the idea that only children can acquire native-like accents in foreign languages is wrong – the brain is flexible throughout live and you can learn to perceive and produce foreign sounds. However there are emotional barriers which stop many people from sounding ‘native’. When learning another language you can also take on or create a new identity, and those who are willing and able to do this are most likely to sound more like native speakers. You also shouldn’t worry about mimicking people. In fact that is a good way to acquire native-like pronunciation.

Michael Levi Harris, an actor and polyglot from New York, talked about parallels between learning a part and learning a language. He explained that actors tend to exaggerate speech and physical mannerisms when learning a part, then make them more subtle, and that language learners can try the same things – exaggerate the pronunciation, gestures, etc. until they become second nature, then tone them down. He also talked about taking on different identities when speaking different languages and with different accents. If you can find a native speaker of a language whose voice and mannerisms appeal to you, then you can create your character in that language based on them.

The extend to which you take on a new identity in a new language depends on how much you want to integrate into a new culture. If you want to be taken for a native, then you need to sound and act like them. Alternatively you could try sounding like a native, perhaps with a bit of a foreign accent, but not worry so much about acting like them. If you spend a lot of time in a different county interacting and observing the natives, you’re likely to pick up at least some of their behaviour anyway.

Fiel Sahir, an Indonesian-American musician and polyglot who currently lives in Germany, talked about applying musical techniques to language learning. He explained how practice is the key to music and language, but it has to be intelligent practice that focuses on areas that you find difficult. This might be particular passages in a piece of music, or particular tenses or noun declensions in a language. By focusing like this, you can make a lot of progress.

Focus is something that I find difficult sometimes. I can and do focus, but often get distracted. I was thinking about how I’ve been dabbling with a variety of languages recently and not making a lot of progress in any of them. So my plan is to focus on one, or two, languages for the next year – Russian and Czech – and learn as much as I can in them. I will keep my other languages ticking over, but not spend much time on them.

Multilingual esprit de l’escalier

Last night I went to Global Café, a gathering of international and local students, and had chances to use quite a few different languages, including Czech, Hindi, Taiwanese, Cantonese, Mandarin and Spanish, and also English. Apart from English and Mandarin, I don’t speak any of these languages well, and I only know bits and pieces of some of them. When I was trying to speak them I soon ran out of things to say, and was thinking that there wasn’t much more I could say.

Afterwards I came up with quite a few other things I could have said, and realised that I know more of these languages then I thought, especially Czech and Spanish, which I’ve been studying on and off for many years, but rarely speak. One thing that tends to hold me back from saying more is uncertainty about how to say things correctly. I don’t mind making mistakes, but I prefer to get things right, or at least not too wrong. I try to get the words in the right order, even if some of the verb conjugations and noun declensions are wrong.

Do you suffer from multilingual esprit de l’escalier?

Does fear of making mistakes stop you from speaking any of your languages?

Archerien

An interesting word that came up in my Breton lesson today is archerien, which means police. It caught my attention because it has no obvious connection to the word police, and because it is completely different to the equivalent words in other Celtic languages:

– Welsh: heddlu (“peace force”)
– Cornish: kreslu (“peace host”)
– Irish: gardaí (síochána) (“guards of peace”); póilíní
– Manx: meoiryn shee (“peace keepers/stewards”); poleenyn
– Scottish Gaelic: poileas

The English word police comes from the French police (public order, administration, government), from the Latin polītīa (state, government), from the Greek πολιτεία (politeia – citizenship, government, administration, constitution). It is shares the same root as policy, politics, politician and various other words [source].

Many languages use variants on the word police, e.g. Politsei (Estonian), პოლიცია (polits’ia – Georgian), Polizei (German), पुलिस (pulis – Hindi), پلیس (pulis – Persian), Booliis (Somalia), Policía (Spanish), Pulis (Tagalog), but some do their own thing:

– Bavarian: Kibara
– Chinese: 警察 (jǐngchá); 公安 (gōng’ān)
– Faroese: Løgregla
– Greek: Αστυνομία (Astynomía)
– Hungarian: Rendőrség
– Icelandic: Lögregla
– Japanese: 警察 (keisatsu)
– Korean: 警察 (gyeongchal)
– Thai: ตำรวจ (tảrwc)

Are there other examples of languages with a word unrelated to police for police?

A review of Rocket Hindi

In April this year I was offered a free subscription to a Rocket Languages course in return for writing a review. My plan was to write the review after completing the course, however I realise that it’ll take me quite a while to work my way through the entire course so decided to write the review now.

A bit of background
Rocket Language courses are primarily provided online, though the courses are also available on CDs. The company was started in 2004 by Jason Oxenham and Mark Ling, who wanted to create an online Spanish course that was fun and easy to use, and that gave students the confidence to speak the language as soon as possible. The course proved popular, and the company now offers courses in Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Italian, Hindi, German, French, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, ASL and English for Spanish speakers.

Why Hindi?
I wanted to try out the course in a language I didn’t know at all, which narrowed the choice down to ASL and Hindi. I chose Hindi because I know a number of people who speak it and I thought it might be interesting and useful to know. While this review focuses on Rocket Hindi, it is relevant to the other courses as they have a similar structure.

Details of the course
When you log into your Rocket Language course you see a welcome screen featuring links to Your Course, which contains all the language lessons; Your Motivation, which contains tips on learning languages, improving your memory, measuring your progress and so on, and Your Community, which links to the learners’ forums for the language you’re learning, and also for the other languages offered by Rocket Languages.

The course is split into two stages: stage 1 includes sections entitled Greetings and Meetings, The Perfect Tourist, In Town and Food and Drink. Stage 2 has sections entitled Retail Therapy, Family and Friends, Activities and Hobbies and a review section. There is also a section called the Survival Kit, which contains lessons on body parts, city, clothing, colours countries, days, food, house, numbers. In addition, you can download a piece of software called MegaHindi, which tests you on vocabulary with a number of quizzes.

Each lesson features a short conversation in Hindi which is presented in the Devanagari alphabet, in Romanized form and in English. You can listen to just the conversation, or listen to the full lesson, which is narrated by an American with the Hindi parts spoken by native speakers of Hindi. The lessons go through the conversation line by line explaining what all the words mean and how they go together. It explains how the words and structures can be used to make other sentences, and encourages you to make your own sentences. Lessons after the first one also review the conversation from the previous lesson and encourage you to go back to that lesson if you don’t understand everything.

Additional vocabulary used in the lessons is provided, and the end of each lesson you can test whether you have absorbed everything with the Rocket Review – a short quiz on the recorded lesson, and with a written quiz. You can save words into a custom dictionary, and make notes as well.

As well as the main language lessons, there are also lessons on language and culture. These are written lessons which introduce you to various aspects of the culture and include relevant words and phrases with recordings. Within these lessons you can also learn the Devanagari alphabet.

When you have completed each stage there is a comprehensive test on everything covered in that stage. If you score 80% or more, you pass the test and receive a certificate by email. The course aims to take you to A2 level of the Common European Frame of Reference for Languages.

My assessment
So far I have only completed part 1 of stage 1 and have learnt greetings, how to talk about myself, ordering food and drink, booking a hotel and such like. I need listen to each lesson several times before I can understand and produce all the words and phrases, and am gradually becoming more familiar with the sounds, rhythms, structures and the Devanagari alphabet. I would prefer more explanations of the grammar and a more standard Romanization system. The system used looks like this: kaisee haiM aap? (कैसी हैं आप?) – How are you?, while I’m more familiar with the UN system, in which that phrase would be kaisī haiṅ āp? It would also be very useful to have a lesson or some lessons showing you how to write the Devanagari letters and numerals by hand. In the absence of this, I found the SOAS Hindi Script Tutor very useful.

The course has a similar structure to other courses I’ve tried, including Teach Yourself, Colloquial and Pimsleur courses. It covers a lot more material than Pimsleur, though perhaps not quite as much as the Teach Yourself and Colloquial courses – they tend to have more grammatical explanations and exercises, but only the dialogues and some of the exercises are recorded. With the Rocket Language courses every bit of foreign text is recorded, so you’re not left wondering how to pronounce something. The Rocket conversations are recorded at normal conversational speed, I think, and the speakers pronounce things clearly. When explaining words and phrases they pronounce them more slowly and break up some words into syllables.

While the Rocket courses are primarily provided online, you can order an offline version on CDs, and you can also download all the mp3 files and listen to them whenever you like. This feature appeals to me as it means I don’t need to be online or tied to my computer to use the course. I have also made PDFs of all the lessons as well, so can peruse offline if I choose.

The Rocket Language courses seem to be aimed mainly at people who have little of no previous language learning experience and who are planning to visit a country where the language they’re learning is spoken. The conversations I’ve listened to and studied so far are mainly focused on language useful to tourists, however the lessons also show how the phrases used can be applied to different situations, so are useful even if you’re not planning a trip to a relevant country.

How much does it cost?
The online version of each Rocket Language costs US$149, which gives you unlimited, lifetime access to the course, and to any changes and improvements to it. The offline version on CDs costs US$299. Discounts are often available, and free 60-day trials are offered for all languages. These costs compare very favourably with Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur courses, though are more than Teach Yourself and Colloquial courses.

Do I recommend it?
Yes, definitely. I have enjoyed this course so far and hope to complete it eventually. I have successfully tried out some of the phrases on Hindi-speaking friends, and when I listen to online Hindi radio broadcasts, such as BBC Hindi, I am starting to pick odd bits and pieces.

क्या आप हिन्दी बोलते हैं?

Last week I started learning Hindi – I was offered a free subscription to a Rocket Languages course in return for writing a review, which will appear here and on Omniglot once I’ve completed the course.

I thought that I should choose a language I hadn’t studied before, and of the languages they teach (Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Italian, Hindi, German, French, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, ASL and English for Spanish speakers), the only ones I haven’t studied, or at least dabbled with, are Hindi and ASL. I chose Hindi because I thought it would be interesting to have a go at an Indo-Aryan language and to learn a new alphabet, and because I have a number of Hindi-speaking friends.

Rocket Langauge courses are online and audio-based courses with downloadable mp3s of the lessons, each of which is about 30 minutes long – I’m assuming they all follow the same format as the Hindi one. I’ve only done two lessons so far and have learnt some useful basic phrases in Hindi. Each lesson starts with a short conversation which is presented in spoken and written form (in the Devanagari and Latin alphabets), and the written material also includes new words and phrases not included in the conversation. The recordings feature an American narrator and two native speakers of Hindi (a man and a woman), and explain new words and phrases, go over things from the previous lesson, and give you alternative ways of saying things. You are also encouraged to try to make your own sentences.

When you have completed the lesson to your satisfaction, there’s a short written quiz, and also a review at the end of the recording. You can save words and phrases into a personal dictionary, and there are forums where you can discuss your studies and ask for clarification of anything that’s not clear.

I haven’t found any lessons on the Devanagari alphabet within the course yet, but there may be some. In the meantime, I’ve used the SOAS Hindi Script Tutor to help me learn how to write the letters and their sounds. I already recognise quite a few of them and know how the alphabet works.

In case you’re wondering, the title of this post means “Do you speak Hindi?” (kyā āp hindī bolte haiṅ?) – I can now answer this with, मैं थोडी सी हिन्दी बोलता हूँ (maiṁ thoḍī sī hindī boltā hūṁ), or “I speak a little Hindi”.