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?

Treading in Spinach

Language quiz image

A few posts ago I wrote about an interesting Swedish idiom – trampa i klaveret – to make a social mistake, put one’s foot in it, or literally “to step heavily on the accordion”.

Today I learnt the Danish equivalenttræde i spinaten (“to tread in the spinach”). For example, jeg har virkelig trådt i spinaten (“I have really trod in the spinach”) = I really put my foot in it.

Accoriding to Den Danske Ordbog, træde i spinaten means “utilsigtet sige eller gøre noget dumt” (to accidentally say or do something stupid).

Another version is træde/trampe i spinatbedet (“tread/tramp in the spinach bed”) [source].

Then there’s the spinatfugl or “spinach bird”, which is apparently a person who writes reviews or other cultural material in a newspaper without a journalistic background [source].

Does anybody know why such a person is known as a spinach bird?

The word spinach comes from the Middle English spinach, from Anglo-Norman spinache, from the Old French espinoche, from the Old Occitan espinarc, from the Arabic إِسْفَانَاخ‎ (ʾisfānāḵ), from the Persian اسپناخ‎ (ispanâx).

Apparently spinach cinema refers to “Movies that are not very exciting or interesting, but that one feels one must see because they are educational or otherwise uplifting.” [source]

Are there any interesting spinach or other vegetable-related idioms in other languages?

Portugal oranges and Chinese apples

An orange

In Romanian the word for orange (the fruit) is portocală [portoˈkalə]. This comes from the Greek πορτοκάλι (portokáli – orange), from the Venetian portogallo (orange), from the Italian Portogallo (Portugal).

An number of other languages get their word for orange from the same root:

– Albanian: portokall
– Amharic: ብርቱካናማ (biritukanama)
– Arabic: برتقال (burtuqaal)
– Azerbaijani: portağal
– Bulgarian: портокал (portokal)
– Georgian: ფორთოხალი (p’ort’okhali)
– Macedonian: портокал (portokal)
– Persian (Farsi): پرتقال (porteghâl)
– Turkish: portakal

Portuguese merchants were probably the first to introduce oranges to Europe, hence the link between oranges and Portugal.

In some languages oranges are known as “Chinese apples”: Apfelsine (German), appelsien / sinaasappel (Dutch), apelsin (Swedish), etc. This makes sense as oranges were first cultivated in China in about 2,500 BC.

Words for oranges in some Slavic languages come from the Old French pomme d’orenge: pomeranč (Czech), pomaranča (Slovene), pomarańcza (Polish).

The word orange derives from नारङ्ग (nāraṅga) – “orange tree” in Sanskrit, which is probably of Dravidian origin. The word for orange in Portuguese, laranja, comes from this root.

The colour orange was named after the fruit. In Old English the colour orange was referred to as ġeolurēad (yellow-red), or ġeolucrog (yellow-saffron) [source].

Souces: Wiktionary,, Google Translate, Wikipedia, Flickr

Multilingual hospital

The staff and patients in the hospital are from many different places and speak a variety of languages.

Yesterday I overheard a consultation involving a man from Afghanistan who spoke no English, so his relatives were interpreting. I couldn’t tell if he was speaking Dari or Pashto or another language, as I’m not familiar with languages from that region.

When I was chatting with the ambulance crew, who were all from Australia, and mentioned that I speak a variety of languages, one of them joked that she barely speaks English. This seems to be quite a common reaction when monolinguals encouter polyglots.

One of the doctors I saw yesterday told me that they often need interpreters in the hospital and frequently use phone-based ones. The languages most in demand at the moment are Arabic and Farsi.

I’m going home in a little while, which will be an adventure and challenge, and will get my ankle fixed properly tomorrow in Ysbyty Gwynedd in Bangor, hopefully.

Change of plan – I will have the operation in Lancaster, then stay with my Mum, who lives nearby, while recovering.

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.

What does it take to master a language?

Today we have a guest post from Alex Sorin of Foreigncy featuring an interview with their Persian linguist, Matt Cheek.

Those who have succeeded in turning their passion for languages into a career making a difference in the world know that mastering a language takes years of persistence and dedication. Turning your passion into your trade requires more than just language study, it includes significant time spent abroad absorbing a country’s culture, and always seeking new tools to harness your skills. The below interview was conducted with Foreigncy‘s Persian linguist, who shares his thoughts on what it took to master the Persian language and how his journey studying Persian led to a deeper appreciation of a foreign culture.

First, what is your favorite Persian expression?

دستت درد نکنه – “Dastet dard nakoneh” It’s an idiomatic expression meaning roughly “thank you” or “don’t trouble yourself” in Persian, but the literal translation is “May your hand not have pain.” I also really like the Persian saying, گل پشت و رو نداره “Gol posht o ro nadareh” which is used specifically when you are sitting directly behind someone and they turn around to apologize for your having to sit directly behind them and see the back of their head. This phrase is a response to that apology and literally translates to “A flower doesn’t have a front or back.” I like idioms because they really reveal a lot about how people from that culture think.

When did you become interested in studying Persian and what were the most challenging aspects about learning the language?

I’ve always been interested in languages in general. In high school, Spanish and French were the only classes I consistently did well in, but I was basically ordered to be interested in Persian when I showed up to the Defense Language Institute and assigned to learn the language based on aptitude tests and the needs of the Marine Corps. Being assigned to Persian turned out to be an amazing thing as I fell in love with the language and the culture of Iran almost instantly. I can’t imagine where I’d be if I had been assigned any other language. The most challenging aspect of the language for me to grasp was the direct object marker را “ra” and when to use it.

How would you compare the military’s language learning methods to that of universities? What’s better or worse?

Honestly, the military’s language training was so vastly superior it’s not even a fair comparison. At DLI you are assigned to a class of around 20-30 students from all military branches. All of the students have no knowledge of the language at all when the program begins. The class is further broken down into sections and each section may have 4 students each with each section having a designated “main” professor. The professors at DLI are all native speakers for the target language and they rotate hours teaching your section, so you may be exposed to an Iranian PhD with a Tehrani accent in the first hour of the day, an Iranian PhD with a Shirazi accent in the second hour, and so on. Each day you study with these native instructors for a minimum of 7 hours and then you have mandatory study halls and homework. So, it’s a very intensive program and my Persian program lasted for 52 weeks. By the end of the program we were dreaming in Persian and able to carry on full conversations about abstract ideas and we reached levels of fluency that were pretty astounding.

In college, I was in the highest level of Persian classes offered by UNC and I was one of three students in the class and the only non-native speaker among the group. My professor was a PhD holding Iranian, but she was the lone professor, which meant exposure to only one accent. The military simply has the advantages of being capable of taking 100% of students’ time and good performance on the foreign language proficiency tests comes with a monthly pay increase. While in college I had Persian classes three days a week for fifty minutes at a time with homework and readings to complete before each class session. If you want to become proficient in a language and your plan is to do so through college classes, you will need to supplement whatever classes you take with a lot of additional resources, whether that is daily language drills like we do at Foreigncy, time spent speaking with native speakers, listening to podcasts and YouTube videos, or reading news articles. I have plenty of friends that became highly proficient in Persian through college though, so it’s definitely possible to become proficient in a language by way of college classes.

Tell me a bit about your time in Tajikistan. How crucial is it for a Persian language student to live in a country where the language is spoken? What role did being immersed in the culture play in shaping your mastery of the language and appreciation for it?

I had a great time studying in Tajikistan. It was an eye-opening experience because I thought I was going to be able to communicate effectively going into the experience, but what I found out is that Tajik involves far more Russian loan-words than I had expected. It’s crucial for a student of any language to immerse themselves in the language and culture in order to really learn to speak the language on a high level, but immersion doesn’t exactly necessitate living in that country. For instance, a Persian speaker can speak far more Iranian Persian in parts of Los Angeles than they can in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. I was really in a unique position there as I was immersed in Tajik language and culture, but my goal was to study Iranian Persian. The role that my immersion experience played in my language skills was a large one as I improved my speaking and listening a great deal, I learned a lot more about everyday idioms and speech patterns, and I was able to have some great experiences observing how Sunni Islam is lived on a daily basis.

When you were starting out as a Persian student, what were some study strategies that worked best for you?

I cannot stress enough the importance of listening to and communicating with native speakers. You can pick up some bad habits if you only speak with second-language speakers of a language and you will develop an awkward accent. For me personally, I spent as much time with my professors outside of the classroom as they would allow me to. I did everything short of following them home at night because I saw the need for speaking and listening and having immediate feedback if I mispronounced or misunderstood something. Another thing I did then and do still to this day is I try to translate everything into Persian in my head, even my thoughts. A good practice to get into is to, when speaking English, stop yourself and think, “how would I say that in X language?” If you can’t express the thought in your target language, then go learn how to. I also studied flashcards religiously, but it’s important to not just look at the target language and think of the English translation, the reverse is harder and helps ingrain the target word into your brain so you can begin to think in the target language. It’s also important to approach a language with no fear, don’t be afraid of messing up or sounding like an idiot.

If I was a Persian student, how do you recommend navigating a Foreigncy Persian set to utilize it to the fullest?

You should review the flash cards thoroughly, go through them with the Persian side showing first and listen to the pronunciation of the words you don’t know how to pronounce. Then, go through the flashcards again with the English side showing first. If you can’t think of all of the Persian equivalents of the English words, review the cards again. Then complete the drag and drop quiz a few times until you feel comfortable enough to read the article. Read the article and copy/paste words you don’t know to save later so you can define them and make flashcards out of them. If you did this everyday, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to pick up a Persian language newspaper and read and comprehend it.

What separates someone who becomes a language expert from those that don’t quite make it to that level, because we all start at the same place. Is it raw talent and inherent language ability, or does determination and persistence win out in the end?

There is undoubtedly some aspect of innate ability involved in second language learning, this has been scientifically proven. But, determination plays a much larger role in my eyes. If you are willing to put in the time and energy actively seeking out uses for your second language, you will not only improve linguistically, but you may even find unique opportunities you never would have had as a monolingual person. For example, in an attempt to use more Persian and Dari, I volunteered to translate green card application appointments for Iranian and Afghan refugees in my city through a non-profit organization and it’s not only been productive for me from a linguistic perspective, but it has been a rewarding experience that has led me to meeting some interesting people with unique perspectives.

About Foreigncy
Foreigncy is a critical language training website for professional and aspiring linguists. Foreigncy’s team prepares daily language sets that prepare you to read foreign language news articles in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hebrew, Mandarin, and Russian.


Novi Sad Catholic Cathedral

Yesterday morning I met up with other conference participants and after a bit of a wander around the city, we had lunch then went to the opening ceremony a reception. In the after we had a little guided tour of Novi Sad seeing some interesting buildings, including the Catholic or Orthodox Cathedrals, and the fortress. There are some rather attractive buildings here, wide, pedestrianised café-lined streets, some nice parks and generally a relaxed kind of atmosphere.

In the evening we all went to a restaurant about 4 or 5km from the city centre for dinner. I walked there with a few others, and the rest went by bus or taxi. We had a nice dinner with lots of polyglot chat, then some people started dancing, and others carried on chatting.

Novi Sad town hall

Today there were lectures and talks on a variety of topics including sound symbolism, the magic of metaphors, language coaching, and acting and humour in a foreign language.

So far I’ve had conversations in about 10 languages and spoken bits and pieces of maybe 10 others. In some cases this was only a few words (all I know), in others it was a bit more. There are even two guys here who are learning Scottish Gaelic, one of whom also speaks a bit of Manx, and another who is learning Irish.

An owlfully badgered cup of tea

badger and cup

Yesterday I discovered that the Italian word for cup, tazza, is rather similar and possibly confusable with the word for badger, tasso, which can also mean a rate (of exchange) or a yew (tree).

It’s unlikely that if you mistakenly ask for un tasso di tè rather than una tazza di tè, you will be given a badger of tea, but it would be an easy mistake to make, especially if you know the French word for cup, tasse, or the Spanish taza, or the German Tasse, which comes from the French, which comes from the Arabic طاس (ṭās – die; bowl), from the Persian تاس (tās – die/dice).

I also discovered the wonderful word owlful, which means full of badgers, or possibly full of owls. How awful it must be to be owlful! It’s a word that should have appeared in the Harry Potter books, which are brimful of owls at points, and slightly, though not entirely, badgerless.