Sinking Basins

One of the Dutch words I learnt recently is gootsteen [ˈɣoːt.steːn], which is a sink or washbasin. It comes from goot (gutter) and steen (stone). According to Duolingo, you might encounter a gootsteen in a bathroom (badkamer / toilet) or kitchen (keuken).

A kitchen sink is a gootsteen, keukengootsteen, or aanrecht [ˈaːn.rɛxt], which is also a kitchen counter or counter top. Alles behalve het aanrecht is “everything but the kitchen sink”, a phrase that started to appear in writing in the early 20th century in newspapers and books in the USA [source].

A washbasin is also a wastafel (“wash-table”), wasbak (“wash-container”), or in Belgium a lavabo, from the Latin lavābō (I will wash).

What does the word sink mean to you?

How about washbasin?

Do you have other words for these things?

Are there separate words for them in other languages?

To me a sink is something you would normally find in a kitchen, or a laboratory. It is often square or rectangular and relatively deep.

Kitchen sink plus tap

A washbasin is something you would find in a bathroom and is often rounded a relatively shallow. Other types of washbasin are available.

Don't try this at home

Sources: Wiktionary, Reverso, Duolingo


One of the sentences that came up in my Dutch lessons today was “De jeugd van vandaag is onze toekomst”, which is translated as “The youth of today are our future” (emphasis added).

In Dutch de jeugd (the youth) is singular and is accompanied by a singular form of the verb, is, while in English the youth are seen as a collection of people, so are plural. You could argue that since the youth is singular in English, so you should say the youth is rather than the youth are, but that sounds strange to me.

Other examples of this phenomenon include:

  • Het personeel is laat = The staff are late
  • Het team is succesvol = The team are/is successful
  • De meerderheid is er tegen = The majority are/is against it
  • De raad is nutteloos = The council are/is useless
  • De familie is verenigd = The family are/is united
  • Amazon is een enorm bedrijf = Amazon are/is a huge company

Apparently in American English it is common to use the singular with collective nouns like team and family, while in British English plurals are more commonly used.

If you see a company or a group of people like a team as a single entity, then it makes sense to use the singular form of the verb, but if you see them as a group of people, then the plural form makes more sense.

Would you use the singular or plural in the above examples?

Are there differences in usage like this in other languages?

More information about this:

How about data? In scientific and financial papers it is often accompanied by a plural verb – the data are inconclusive, for example, but in everyday usage it is usually treated as singular – the data is out of date. Pedants might argue that data, like agenda, is plural, and their singular forms should be datum and agendum. While this is true in Latin, its not how these words are commonly used, at least since the 1940s. More discussion on this.

Data was borrowed from Latin data, the plural of datum (that is given), the past participle of (I give) [source].

Would you say a box of lego or a box of legos? How about a lego or a piece of lego? To my ears legos sounds strange, even though I know plenty of people use it.

Spelling Reform

Yesterday I was sent another alternative orthography for English. I receive them quite often, usually for English, but sometimes for other languages. Some involve only minor changes to the current system, while others involve significant changes, and often lots of diacritics and/or extra letters.

Spelling bee

I’m also sent adaptations of other alphabets for English (and other languages), and original constructed scripts, some of which use the standard spelling system, and others use reformed/improved versions. I’m more inclinded to add the constructed and adapated scripts rather then the alternative spelling systems, if I think they are sufficiently interesting, original and elegant.

Here’s is an example of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in several alternative orthographies for English, which appear on Omniglot.

This is the original text:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

New English (Nū Iŋglıx)
This is a more logical and consistent spelling for English invented by Richard Parry.

Ōl hyūmən bī’ıŋz ā bōn frī and īkwəl ın dıgnıtī and ruıts. Ðeı ā ındaod wıđ rīzən and konxəns and xưd akt təwōdz wun ənuđə ın ə spırıt ov bruđəhưd.

Tower Orthography (Tawyr Oorthaagryfii)
This is was invented by Timothy Patrick Snyder and Rebecca Spatz with the aim of making a simple and phonetic system of writing.

Ol hjuumanz ar boorn frij and ikwol in dignitij and raits. Dhej ar indawd with riizon and kancints and cud akt twardz wyn ynydhyr in y spirit yv brydhyrhud.

Expressive English Alphabet (IKSPꞋΣSIϽ IИGLIƧ ΛLҒⱭBΣꞆ.)
This is was created by Marcel Burrows. It is designed to have one letter for each sound, and to allow people from any part of the world to write in their own accent.


Here are some others that I decided not to add to Omniglot:

The Script (no other name supplied)
This was devised by Max Khovanski and seeks to make spelling completely unambiguous, and cuts out as many unnecessary letters as possible to improve typing and writing efficiency.

Āāl hūman bēings ar born frē and ēkwal in digniti and rīghts. They ar endawd widh rēson and kons’enc and shúd act tuuwāārds oun anudher in ā spirit of brudherhúd.

Reformed English (Reformd İnglɪʃ)
This was devised by Andy B. to explore the idea of a neatly and consistently formulated English spelling reform.

Ɔl hyuman biyiŋs ɔr born fri and ikwal ɪn dɪgnɪti and rɔits. Ðei ɔr endawd wɪþ rizon and kɔnʃens and ʃʊd akt towards wʌn anʌðr ɪn a spɪrɪt ʌv brʌðrhʊd.

New English (Nū Iŋglıx)
A more logical and consistent spelling for English invented by Richard Parry. There are two versions: the full orthography (shown first), and the new orthography (shown second).

Ool hyuumeun bii’ingz aa boon frii and iikweul in dignitii and ruits. Nhei aa indaod winh riizeun and konxeuns and xu’d akt teuwoodz wun eununheu in eu spirit ov brunheuhu’d.

Ōl hyūmən bī’ıŋz ā bōn frī and īkwəl ın dıgnıtī and ruıts. Ðeı ā ındaod wıđ rīzən and konxəns and xưd akt təwōdz wun ənuđə ın ə spırıt ov bruđəhưd.

To be practical, and easy to type, I think English spelling reforms should stick to the existing letters, rather than adding accented letters, and/or borrowing letters from the IPA or other alphabets. Using the regular aspects of the current orthography might be a good idea as well, rather than coming up with new spellings.

There are alternative ways to write some words in informal contexts, especially online, such as thru for through, that could be used.

What are your views on spelling reform for English, or other languages?

What do you think of the alternative spelling systems I’ve shared here?

Stop yar jifflin!

If you were told to “Stop yar jifflin”, would you know what they meant?

In the Norfolk dialect jiffle apparently means to fidget or more restlessly, so “Stop yar jifflin” means “Stop fidgeting” [source].

According to the Urban Dictionary, jiffle means “To fidgit or move around” and jiffling means “Fidgeting in an annoying childish way”, and comes from Great Yarmouth. One who jiffles is a jiffler.

Then there’s jifflesticks!, which is apparently an extreme form of fiddlesticks [source].

Other interesting words from Norfolk include:

  • mardle = to gossip, chat; a pond
  • pample = to tread lightly or quietly
  • pingle = to play with your food
  • quackle = to strangle or choke
  • yalm / yarm = to eat hungrily

A similar but unrelated word is jaffle, which is apparently a toasted sandwich or toastie in Australia and South Africa, which you might make with jaffle maker or jaffle iron [source].


Peaches, grapes and quinces

An interesting word that came up in my Spanish lessons this morning was durazno [duˈɾasno], which is a peach in Latin American. In Spain a peach is a melocotón [melokoˈton].

Yummy peach!

Durazno comes from the Latin dūracinus, which means ‘hard-berried’, from dūrus (hard) acinus (berry, grape). It originally referred to grapes used for eating rather than wine-making. Later is was also used for other fruits with a central stone, such as peaches [source].

Other words from the same root include:

  • Arabic: دُرَّاق‎‎ (durrāq) – peach
  • French: duracine – a variety of peach with firm flesh
  • Greek: ροδάκινο (rodákino) – peach
  • Italian: duracina – clingstone (peach), bigaroon (a type of cherry)
  • Quechua: turasnu – peach
  • San Juan Colorado Mixtec: durastun – peach
  • Tetelcingo Nahuatl: trösno – peach

A clingstone is a type of fruit with a stone that clings to the flesh, such as a peach [source]. The antonym is freestone, a type of fruit with a stone that doesn’t cling to the flesh (much).

The Quechua, Mixtec and Nahuatl words were borrowed from Spanish. The Arabic word came from the Ancient Greek δωράκινον (dōrákinon).

Melocotón comes from the Latin mālum cotōnium (quince – “apple of Cydonia”), from mālum (apple) and cotōnium (quince tree) [source].

The English word quince comes from the same root via the Old French cooing (quince), and the Late Latin cotōneum (quince) [source].

Cydonia or Kydonia (Κυδωνία) was a city in northwest Crete in the site of modern Chania (Χανιά) [source].

The English word peach comes from the Middle English peche (peach), borrowed from the Old French pesche (peach), from the Vulgar Latin *pessica (peach) from the Late Latin persica (peach), from the Classical Latin mālum persicum (peach, “Persian apple”), from the Ancient Greek μᾶλον περσικόν (mâlon persikón – peach, “Persian apple”) [source].

The scientific name for peach is Prunus persica (“Persian prune”), and comes from the old belief that peaches were native to Persian, and because peaches are related to plums. They are in fact native to the north west of China [source].

Desist latron!

If I told you that I had been subjected to a latrocination by a latron, would you have any idea what I was talking about?

Latron is an old word from a robber, brigand or one who plunders. It comes from the Latin latrō (mercenary, highwayman, brigand, bandit, robber), from the Proto-Indo-European *leh₂t- (to grant, to possess) [source].

The Welsh words lleidr [ɬei̯dr] (thief), lladron [ˈɬadrɔn] (thieves, robbers), lladrad (theft, robbery), lladrata (to steal, rob) and lladratwr (thief) all come from the same root.


A latron might latrocinate or commit latrocination (robbery), latrociny (theft, robbery), latronage (robbery) or Latrocinium (an act of brigandage).

Latrocination is a legal term meaning “the act of robbing; a depredation” [source] – If any lawyers are reading this, is this a word you’ve ever used or heard?

A depredation is “An act of consuming agricultural resources (crops, livestock), especially as plunder; A raid or predatory attack.” [source] or “the act or an instance of plundering; robbery; pillage” [source]

According to The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities – A Yearbook of Forgotten Words by Paul Anthony Jones, latrocination first appeared in English in the mid-17th century, and is “a formal word for theft of robbery”.

Latrocinium [ˌlætɹəˈsɪniəm] is an act of brigandage or an illegitimate church council [source]. It comes from the Latin latrōcinium (military service for pay; robbery, banditry, highway robbery, piracy, brigandage; pillage, plundering; an act of banditry or brigandage; a band of robbers; villany, roguery, fraud) [source].

The English word larceny (the unlawful taking of personal property with intent to deprive the rightful owner of it permanently) comes from the same root, via the Middle English larceni and the Anglo-Norman larcin (theft) [source].

A related Latin word is latrunculus – a highway or robber, or a piece in the ancient Roman boardgame ludus latrunculorum (“the game of brigands”), which was apparently somewhat like chess or draughts / checkers, and was popular throughout the Roman Empire [more details].

Fortunately no latrons have latrocinated anything from me recently.

By the skin of your teeth

An interesting word that came up in my Swedish lessons this week was hinna, which to have sufficient time to do something, to manage to do something in time, or to be on/in time, not to be late. That’s quite a lot of meaning packed into a small word!


Here are some examples of how it’s used:

  • Hinner du idag? = Do you have time today?
  • Jeg hinner inte i dag = I don’t have enough time today
  • Vi hinner inte leka lekar just nu = We don’t have time to play games right now
  • Hann du läsa alla sidorna? = Did you manage to read all the pages?
  • Om vi inte går nu så hinner vi inte till tåget = If we don’t go now, we’ll miss the train
  • Det hinns inte. Kom nu! = There’s no time. Come now!

A possibly related word is hinna, which means a coat(ing), skin (on liquids) film or membrane. So perhaps you’re doing something by the skin of your teeth when you hinna, although the meanings aren’t quite the same.

Doing something by the skin of your teeth means to barely manage to do something, or narrowly succeed in doing something. It apparently comes from the Bible (Job 19:20) “… I am escaped with the skin of my teeth”, and is a literal translation of the original Hebrew.

Do you know any other teeth-based idioms?

Sources: Wiktionary,, The Phrase Finder, The Idioms

Almost, Nearly, Not Quite

One of the words that came up in the French Conversation Group last night was faillir [fa.jiʁ], which means to almost do something or to fail.

Presque ...

Whether you almost do something or fail to do it is really a matter of perspective – the end result is the same. Yesterday, for example, I almost made another episode of the Radio Omniglot podcast. I recorded about 15-20 minutes of it several times, decided it wasn’t good enough, then got distracted with other things, as often happens. I can talk about language-related topics at the drop of a hat until the cows come home, but actually making my ramblings into a reasonably coherent podcast is a different kettle of fish. The editing always takes quite a while, and I usually find something else to do instead.

Today I told myself that I would make the podcast first thing, before checking emails, or getting distracted by other things. Several hours later I still haven’t produced the podcast, but I have learnt some more Swedish and Danish, answered some emails and written this.

Anyway, back to faillir – appears in expressions like:

  • faillir faire = to almost/nearly do
  • J’ai failli tomber = I almost/nearly fell
  • J’ai failli lui dire = I almost/nearly told him
  • J’ai failli l’oublier = I almost forgot about it
  • faillir à qch = to fall short of sth
  • faillir à sa tâche = to fall short of one’s tsak
  • faillir à son devoir = to fall short of one’s duty
  • Il ne faut pas faillir à notre devoir = We must not falter in our duty now
  • J’ai un plan astucieux qui ne peut faillir = I have a cunning plan that cannot fail
  • avoir failli faire qch = to narrowly miss doing sth

Related words include:

  • failli(e) = bankrupt, insolvent
  • la faillite = bankruptcy, collapse (political)
  • une entreprise en faillite = a bankrupt business
  • être en faillite = to be bankrupt
  • faire en faillite = to go bankrupt, fail, go broke, go bust
  • la ferme a failli faire en faillite = the farm almost went bankrupt
  • il faut qu’il faille faire en faillite = he must almost go bankrupt
  • faille = flaw, loophole, weak spot, fault
  • faille fiscale = tax loophole
  • faille spatio-temporelle = time warp

Faillir comes from the Middle French faillir (to fail), from the Old French falir, from the Vulgar Latin *fallīre, from the Latin fallere (to deceive, disappoint, cheat), from the Proto-Indo-European *bʰāl- (to lie, deceive). The English word fail comes from the same root, via the Middle English failen, and the Anglo-Norman faillir (to fail).

Another way to say that you almost did something is J’ai presque fait qch, for example, Il est presque tombé and Il a failli tomber both mean ‘He almost fell’. In the case of the latter, the impression I get is that he was expected to fall, but didn’t, while in the case of the former, there seems to be no expectation that he would fall. Is that right?

Sources: Reverso, Wiktionary,

You Pancake!

If you said to someone “Je bent een pannenkoek!“, they’d probably have no idea what you were talking about, unless they spoke Dutch. This is a kind of mild / affectionate insult in Dutch meaning literally “You’re a pancake”.

It’s often used to refer to oneself – Oh, wat ben ik toch een pannenkoek! (Oh, what a pancake I am!) when you’ve done something stupid, dumb, foolish or clumsy.


Pannenkoek [ˈpɑnə(n)ˌkuk] means pancake, crêpe or flapjack. It comes from pan (pan, cooking pot) and koek (cake, cookie, biscuit, pie).

Pan comes from the Middle Dutch panne (pan), from the Old Dutch *panna (pan), from the Latin panna, a contraction of patina (a broad, shallow dish; a pan; stewpan; a kind of cake; a crib, manger), from the Ancient Greek πατάνη (patánē – a kind of flat dish) [source].

Koek comes from the Middle Dutch coeke (cake), from the Old Dutch *kuoko (cake), from the Proto-Germanic *kōkô (cake). The English words cake, cookie and quiche come from the same root – cake via Old Norse, cookie via Dutch, and quiche via French [source].

Words used in a similar way in Dutch include sufkop (“dull head”, numskull), dommerd (dummy), gekkie (weirdo, goof), oelewapper (ding-dong, dummy, monkey), druif (grape), oliebol (donut, dumpling), koekebakker (“cake bakker”), uilskuiken (“owlet”, nincompoop, birdbrain), flapdrol (fool, nincompoop), mafkees (weirdo, goofball), oen (“castrated donkey”, moron), sukkel (dummy, idiot, twerp) [Information from Anna Rutten and Wiktionary].

Some equivalents of pannenkoek I can think in English are muppet, idiot, wally, plonker and numpty. Others, from Reverso, include: knucklehead, slouch, douche and potato-head.

Can you think of more in English or other languages?

Procrastination Chariots

Do you tend to leave things to the last minute, and then scramble around frantically trying to get them done in time?

I certainly have been known to do this on occasion. For example, for nearly two years, I’ve been meeting with a few friends once a month to share songs we’re working on. During this time I’ve written a new song every month, and often do so in the few days before we meet. I may have various ideas for songs before then, but don’t usually do much with them until the last minute. In this case, I find that having the monthly deadline of our meetings helps.

Before this group started meeting, I wrote songs when I felt inspired – sometimes I’d write several in a month, and at other times I didn’t write anything for ages.

What I indulge in could be called a charet(te), or “a period of intense work, especially group work undertaken to meet a deadline” [source], a word that comes from the Old French charrete (chariot).

The sense of last-minute work apparently comes from the practice of students at the École de Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris working together furiously at the last minute to finish their termly projects, which would be collected on a charette, a small wheeled chart. They were said to be working en charette (“in the chart”), and the night before the deadline was known as la nuit de charette (“charette night”). Any work not on the charette was not accepted for assessment. The word and concept was borrowed into English in the mid-19th century [source].

Vintage cart illustration

Do you find it helpful to have targets and deadlines, whether set by you or someone else?

I don’t usually set myself deadlines and targets when learning languages, unless I’m preparing for a particular trip, event or occasion.