Cats and Porridge

att gå som katten kring het gröt

What connection is there between cats and porridge?

Well in Swedish, att gå som katten kring het gröt (“to walk like the cat around hot porridge”) means that you are not getting to the point, beating around the bush, stalling, avoiding talking directly about something sensitive or unpleasant, approaching something indirectly and cautiously, walking on egg shells, pussyfooting around, or wasting time.

Some examples of how this phrase is used:

  • Låt oss inte gå som katten kring het gröt
    Let us not beat around the bush
  • Vi går som katten kring het gröt, både politiskt och diplomatiskt sett.
    We tread on eggshells, both politically and diplomatically.
  • Vi har tassat likt katten kring het gröt i den frågan alltför länge.
    We have pussyfooted on that issue for far too long.
  • Vi här har varit rädda och gått som katten kring het gröt.
    We here have been fearful and have beaten around the bush.

Source: bab.la

Similar idioms involving cats and porridge are found in a number of other languages:

  • Czech: chodit kolem horké kaše = to walk around hot porridge
  • German: wie die Katze um den heißen Brei herumschleichen = as the cat sneaks around the hot porridge
  • Finnish: kiertää kuin kissa kuumaa puuroa = to pace around hot porridge like a cat
  • Norwegian: å gå som katta rundt den varme grauten = to walk like a cat around hot porridge

These are all equivalents of to beat around the bush.

The English idiom to beat around the bush was first used in writing in 1572, and referred to the practise of beating bushes in order to flush out game animals [source].

Some other cat-related idioms

  • It’s rain cats and dogs = It’s raining heavily
  • To let the cat out of the bag = to reveal a secret
  • Curiosity killed the cat
  • When the cat’s away the mice will play
  • French: Avoir d’autres chats à fouetter = To have other cats to whip = To have other fish to fry / other things to do.
  • French: Avoir un chat dans la gorge = To have a cat in the throat = To have a frog in one’s throat
  • French: appeler un chat un chat = to call a cat a cat = to call a spade a spade = say it like it is
  • French: Chat échaudé craint l’eau froide = Scalded cat fears cold water = Once bitten, twice shy
  • Spanish: El gato escaldado del agua fria huye = The cat that has been scalded runs away from cold water = Once bitten, twice shy
  • German: meine Arbeit war für die Katz = my work was for the cat = my work was a waste of time
  • German: das hat die Katze gefressen = the cat ate it = the fairies took it
  • German: wenn die Katze aus dem Haus ist, tanzen die Mäuse (auf dem Tisch) = when the cat is out of the house, the mice dance (on the table) = when the cat’s away the mice will play

Sources: Idioms of the world, Reverso

Do you know other cat- or porridge-related idioms?

Blue Ants and Pencils

Blyant (pencil in Danish and Norwegian)

In Danish the word for pencil is blyant [ˈblyːˌanˀd], which sort of sounds like blue ant. When I learnt this, I wondered where this word comes from, and I thought I’d share what I found with you.

The word blyant, which is also used in Norwegian, combines bly (lead) with the French suffix -ant. It is an abbreviation of blyertspen [source], which comes from blyert (black lead, graphite), from the German Bleiertz (lead ore – lit. “lead earth”) and pen [source].

Related words include:

  • blyantsholder = pencil holder
  • blyantspenge = financial allowance for members of the European Parliament (“pencil money”)
  • blyantspids = the tip of a pencil
  • blyantspidser = pencil sharpener
  • blyantsstreg / blyantstreg = pencil line
  • blyantstegning / blyanttegning = pencil drawing

Source: Den Danske Ordbog

The words for pencil in Swedish (blyertspenna), Faroese and Icelandic (blýantur) come from the same roots [source].

The German word for pencil, Bleistift [ˈblaɪ̯ʃtɪft] comes from a similar root: Blei (lead) and Stift (pen) [source].

There is in fact a creature called a blue ant (Diamma bicolor) – it is blue, but is a species of wasp rather than an ant, and lives in parts of Australia [source].

Just speirin

Last night I saw FARA, a brilliant group from Orkney, in our local arts centre. One of the songs they sang, Speir Thoo The Wast Wind, was in Orcadian dialect and based on a poem by Christina Costie from Orkney.

Orcadian dialect is a type of Insular Scots that combines elements of the extinct Norn language and Scots. There isn’t a lot of information available about Orcadian, but I will try to put together a page about it on Omniglot.

Each verse of the song and the poem finishes with the line “Speir thoo the wast wind, bit speir no me”, which means “Ask the west wind, and don’t ask me”, I think.

The word speir [spiːr], which is also written speer, means to enquire or ask, according to The Orkney Dictionary. When I heard it in the song, I thought I might be related to words for to ask in North Germanic languages, and it turns out that it is.

It comes from the Old English spyrian (to track, inquire, investigate, examine), from the Proto-Germanic *spurjaną (to search; to examine; to ask) [source], which is also the root of the Danish word spørge (to ask, inquire), Norwegian word spørre (to ask, inquire), and the word spyrja (to ask) in Icelandic and Faroese [source].

A few other words from Orkney dialect: hoodjiekapiv, hoodjiekapiffle, hoodjiekaboogle, which are all Orcadian equivalents of whatsit, thingy, doobry, thingamajig, whatjumacallit, thingamebob, etc [source]. What do you call something when you can’t remember it’s normal name?

You can hear the song here:

Furtive ferrets

What do the words furtive and ferret have in common?

ferret

They come from the same root – the Latin word fūr (thief).

Furtive comes from the French furtif (stealthy), from the Latin fūrtīvus (stolen), from fūrtum (theft), from fūr (thief) [source].

Ferret (Mustela putorius furo) comes from the Middle English furet / ferret (ferret), from the Anglo-Norman firet / furet (ferret), a diminutive of the Old French fuiron (weasel, ferret), from the Late Latin furo (cat; robber), a diminutive of the Latin fūr (thief) [source].

Alternatively ferret comes from the Latin furittus (little thief) [source].

The Latin name of the ferret, mustela putorius furo, means something like “stinking robber weasel” [source].

Fūr comes from the Proto-Italic *fōr (thief), from the Proto-Indo-European *bʰṓr (thief), from *bʰer- (to carry) [source], which also the root of words for child in Germanic languages, such as bairn in Scots, barn in Danish, Faroese, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish, and barn/bern in West Frisian [source].

Glass eyes

Glasögon

Recently I learnt an interesting word in Swedish – glasögon, which means glasses or spectacles, and literally means “glass eyes”.

Glas means glass, and comes from the Proto-Germanic *glasą (glass), from the Proto-Indo-European *ǵʰel- (to shine, shimmer, glow) [source].

Ögon is the plural of öga (eye), and comes from the Old Swedish ø̄gha (eye), from Old Norse auga (eye), from Proto-Germanic *augô (eye), from Proto-Indo-European *h₃ekʷ- (eye; to see) [source].

The Swedish word glas reminds me of the Russian word for eye, глаз (glaz), which I remember by thinking of a glass eye. Глаз comes from the Old East Slavic глазъ (glazŭ – ball, eye), from the Proto-Slavic *glazъ (ball), from Proto-Indo-European *g(ʰ)el- (round, spherical, stone) [source].

The Russian word for glasses is очки (ochki), which comes from очи (ochi), the plural of око (oko), the old Russian word for eye, which comes from the same Proto-Indo-European root as öga and eye [source].

In Danish and Norwegian, the word for glasses is briller, which means ‘a person wearing glasses’ in Dutch, and to shine or sparkle in French [source]. The German word for glasses is simliar – Brille, and the Dutch is bril [source].

Briller, Brille and bril come from the Middle High German berillus (beryl), from the Latin beryllus (beryl), probably from the Ancient Greek βήρυλλος (bḗrullos – beryl), from Sanskrit वैडूर्य (vaidurya – a cat’s eye gem; a jewel), from Dravidian. Probably named after the city Velur (modern day Belur / ಬೇಲೂರು) in Karnataka in southern India. The first glasses, made in about 1300 in Italy, were made from beryl [source].

Beryl is a mineral which comes from three forms: morganite (orange), aquamarine (blue-green – pictured top right) and heliodor (green-yellow).

The French word for glass, lunettes, means “little moons” [source].

Are there interesting words for glasses, spectacles, specs, or eyes in other languages?

When is the sky not the sky?

Useful phrase in Danish

In Danish, Norwegian and Swedish the word sky means cloud, as does ský in Icelandic. The word for sky in these languages is himmel (himinn in Icelandic), and in Swedish sky also means sky or gravy.

I learnt the Danish word sky the other day from the sentence: Enhjørningen flyver på en sky (The unicorn is flying on a cloud) – are very useful thing to be able to say.

Sky comes from the Old Norse ský (cloud), from Proto-Germanic *skiwją (cloud, cloud cover), from Proto-Indo-European *(s)kew- (to cover, conceal), which is also the root of the English word sky [source].

The English word cloud comes from the Old English clūd (mass of stone, rock, boulder, hill), from Proto-Germanic *klūtaz / *klutaz (lump, mass, conglomeration), from Proto-Indo-European *gel- (to ball up, clench), which is also the root of the English words chill, cold, congeal, cool, gel, gelatin and jelly [source].

In Old English there were different words for sky and cloud:

  • heofon was the sky or heaven [source], which survives in such modern English expressions as ‘the heavens opened’ (it started to rain heavily).
  • wolcen was cloud, and the plural, wolcnu was the sky or the heavens [source]. This became welkin in modern English, an archaic and poetic word for the sky, the upper air; aether; the heavens.

A sunny day in Bangor / Dydd heulog ym Mangor

Happy shining people

Smiley face

One of the Swedish lessons I did today was about words for emotions and related words. So I thought I’d find out more about some of them.

There are several words for happy in Swedish:

glad [ɡlɑːd] = delighted, glad, happy, pleased, jolly, lively, bright, bubbly, cheerful, elated, merry, pleasant, sprightly, vivid, gleeful, joyful, joyous, jubilant.

It comes from the Old Swedish glaþer (glad, cheerful), from Old Norse glaðr (glad), from Proto-Germanic *gladaz (shiny, gleaming, radiant, happy, glossy, smooth, flat), from Proto-Indo-European *gʰladʰ-, derivation of *gʰel- (to shine). The English word glad comes from the same root, though via Old English.

nöjd [nøjd] = content, happy, pleased, satisfied, contented, sated.

lycklig [lʏkːlɪɡ] = happy, fortunate, lucky, blessed, bright, upbeat, blissful.

This word comes from lycka (joy, happiness, luck, fortune, fate), which is related to the English word luck. These words are thought to come from the Middle High German lücke, gelücke, possibly from the Frankish *galukki [source].

belåten = content, contented, happy, satisfied

Some words for fun include:

kul [kʉːl] = fun, nice, enjoyable, amusing
roligt = fun
rolig = fun, amusing, diverting, droll, witty, hilarious

One ‘useful’ phrase that came up today was tjejer vill bara ha kul or girls just want to have fun.

In Norwegian rolig means calm, quiet, peaceful or leisurely, and in Danish it means calm or quiet [source]. It comes from the Old Swedish roliker (calm, quiet), from Old Norse róligr.

Other emotional words include:

le [leː] = to smile (related to the English word laugh)
småle = to smile
skratta = to laugh
entusiastisk = enthusiastic, cheerful
hoppingivande = hopeful
ledsen = sad
olycklig = unhappy
arg = angry
rädd = afraid
orolig = worried

Sources: bab.la, Wiktionary

When is a moose not a moose?

Moose

In North America a moose is a large member of the deer family, also known by its Latin name alces alces. The word moose comes from Algonquian languages, such as the Naragansett moos or the Eastern Abenaki mos. These words are thought to come from moosu (“it strips”), from the Proto-Alonquian mo.swa.

The same animal is known as an elk in British English, and is called something similar in quite a few other European languages: elc in Welsh, Elch in German, elg in Icelandic, Danish and Norwegian, älg in Swedish, alce in Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, and alnis in Latvian [source].

Elk

The word elk refers to a different species of deer in North America, however, which is also known as the wapiti or cervus canadensis in Latin [source]. The name wapiti comes from the Cree or Shawnee waapiti (elk; white rump) [source].

In French a moose or elk is élan [eɪˈlɑːn], wapiti [wa.pi.ti] or orignal [ɔ.ʁi.ɲal]. Élan probably comes from Lativan [source]. Orignal refers to the Canadian moose and comes from the Basque word oreinak, plural of orein (deer) [source].

Moose is also a way to write mouse in Scots – it’s pronouned [mus], and features in the famous saying “there’s a moose loose aboot this hoose”, which comes from the song Hoots Mon by Harry Robinson [source].

So a moose is a moose, except when it’s an elk or a mouse.

Here’s a tune I wrote called The Loose Moose / Yr Elc Rhydd:

Photos by Faris Algosaibi and Andrew E. Russell. Found on Flickr.

Cows, beef and shepherds

Cows among the heather in Cregneash, Isle of Man

Yesterday I learnt the Russian word for beef, говядина [ɡɐˈvʲædʲɪnə], and the promotely forgot it. So I thought I’d investigate its etymology to help me remember it.

говядина comes from говядо [ɡɐˈvʲadə] and old word for cattle. This comes from the Proto-Slavic *govędo (head of cattle, bull, ox), from the Proto-Indo-European *gʷew-n̥d-, from *gʷṓws (cattle) [source].

The usual Russian word for cow is корова [source], which comes from the Proto-Slavic *kőrva (cow), from the Proto-Indo-European *ḱerh₂- (horn) [source].

*gʷṓws is also the root of:

  • gak = boar (Albanian)
  • govs = cattle, cow (Latvian)
  • говядо = beef (Ukrainian)
  • говедо = cattle (Bulgarian, Macedonian & Serbian)
  • govedo = cattle (Croatian & Slovenian)
  • hovado = brute (Czech & Slovak)
  • gowjedo = cow (Lower Sorbian)
  • *kūz = cow (Proto-Germanic)
  • Kuh = cow (German)
  • koe = cow (Dutch)
  • ku = cow (Norwegian)
  • ko = cow (Swedish, Danish, North Frisian)
  • coo, kye = cow (Scots)
  • βοῦς = cow (Ancient Greek)
  • bōs = cow, bull, ox (Latin)
  • bou = ox (Catalan)
  • bue = ox, beef (Italian)
  • bife = steak (Portuguese)
  • bou= ox, idiot (Romanian)
  • buey= ox. steer (Spanish)
  • bœuf = cow, ox, beef, jam session (French)
  • *bāus = cow (Proto-Celtic)
  • *bōws = ox (Proto-Celtic)
  • bu, buw = cow, bullock, head of cattle (Middle Welsh)
  • buwch = cow (Welsh)
  • bugh = cow (Cornish)
  • bu, buoc’h = cow (Breton)
  • bó = cow (Irish)
  • booa = cow (Manx)
  • bò = cow (Scottish Gaelic)

The English words beef and bovine come ultimately from the same root. Beef comes from the Middle English beef, bef, beof, from the Anglo-Norman beof, from the Old French buef, boef (ox). from Latin bōs (“ox”)

The Proto-Indo-European word *gʷowkólos, from *gʷṓws (cow) & *kʷel- (to revolve, move around, sojourn) gives us the following words in the Celtic languages [Source].

  • *boukolyos = herdsman (Proto-Celtic)
  • *bʉgöl = herdsman (Proto-Brythonic
  • bugail = shepherd, pastor (Welsh)
  • bugel = child, shepherd (Cornish)
  • bugel = child (Breton)
  • búachaill = cowherd (Old Irish)
  • buachaill = boy, herdsman, servant, boyfriend (Irish)
  • bochilley = shepherd, herdsman (Manx)
  • buachaill, buachaille = cowherd, herdsman, shepherd, youth (Scottish Gaelic)

Quarter of eight and half nine

Clock image

If someone told the time was quarter of eight, what would you understand by that?

As far as I can discover, quarter of eight is how some people in the USA refer to 7:45. Other ways to say the same thing include quarter to eight, quarter til(l) eight and seven forty-five. Does anybody in the English-speaking world say quarter before eight, or something else?

8:30 can be eight thirty, half past eight or half eight. I think the last one is only used in the UK. Does anybody say something different?

When learning other Germanic languages, such as Dutch and German, English speakers can get confused when hearing that the time is half eight – halb acht (German), half acht (Dutch) – we expect it to be 8:30, but it is in fact 7:30.

08:30 is half negen (Dutch), halb neun (German), halv ni (Danish / Norwegian), halv nio (Swedish), hálf níu (Icelandic), or half nine.

Is it as confusing for speakers of other Germanic languages learning English?

I’ve put together a page of ways to tell the time in English – comments and additions are very welcome.