As we ring down the curtain on yet another year, many of us will hear, play, or sing what is sometimes dubbed “the most famous song that nobody knows.” With lyrics traditionally butchered by millions at midnight on New Year’s Eve—”Auld Lang Syne” was the title and key phrase of a Scots poem written by Robert Burns in 1788. The phrase itself had been around for 200 years before Burns’s poem popularized it.
“Auld lang syne” (“syne” can be pronounced either “zine” or “sine”) translates literally into English as “old long since” and means essentially “days gone by” or “long, long ago.” It’s historically a drinking song—the phrase “we’ll take a cup of kindness” isn’t referring to warm milk—but feel free to enjoy it without alcohol. It suggests reminiscing about good times with old friends and loved ones that we promise never to forget. “Should old acquaintance be forgot?” Never! is the implied answer. The song has five verses, but no one sings—or shall I say attempts to sing—anything but the first verse and the chorus, which follow: Continue reading ““Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve”
We native speakers of English are often guilty of taking jabs at our mother tongue—whether good-naturedly or otherwise—because of its many oddities and peculiarities. We sometimes forget that English is the international language of trade and commerce for reasons that go beyond the fact of America’s preeminence—and before that, the British Empire’s preeminence—on the world stage. English is an expressive, robust, flexible language that is relatively easy for non-native speakers to acquire and use with facility.
In my reading recently, I came across this quote on the exceptional nature of English. Although written seventy years ago, I believe it’s still relevant and worth sharing with you:
You are fortunate because your language is English. English is a great language; among the world’s languages it is perhaps the one that gives the individual the greatest freedom. It is poetic and practical at the same time; it is tremendously rich; it’s a sort of all-purpose language. One hundred years ago, the German writer Jakob Grimm wrote of English: “In wealth, good sense, and thrifty order no other of the living languages may be put beside it.” He was just one of the many foreigners who envy us our language; there is almost nothing you can’t do with it.
I’m an advocate of learning foreign languages; I’ve formally studied several of them. If you haven’t done so, please do study another language, if for no other reason than to keep your mind nimble or to deepen your appreciation of a different culture. But remember: if you read or speak English, be humbly grateful. It is a great language.
 Rudolf Flesch, The Art of Readable Writing (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1949), 206. In fairness, there are contrary opinions, such as this one by a noted linguist: “The common idea that English dominates the world because it is ‘flexible’ implies that there have been languages that failed to catch on beyond their tribe because they were mysteriously rigid. I am not aware of any such languages.” (John McWhorter, “English Is Not Normal,” November 13, 2015, https://aeon.co)
Do you know where all ten of these Christmas terms came from?
The Christmas season is “the most wonderful time of the year” for many of us. Just think of the many words we associate only with Christmas. The following ten words are among them. (This article first appeared in my blog three years ago.)
1. Advent – Advent is derived from the Latin adventus, meaning “arrival” or “the coming.” By the end of the sixth century, Pope Gregory I had instituted in the Roman church the practice of conducting a special mass on each of the four Sundays leading up to “the coming” of the Christ-child. Similar to Lent, the season of Advent included fasting and penitence followed by a time of celebration. Eventually, the penitential nature of Advent gave way exclusively to the celebratory nature. Today, Advent is still celebrated in many churches, with each Sunday featuring a different theme, such as the prophecies of Jesus’ birth, the Annunciation to Mary, the visitation of the angels and shepherds, or the gifts of the wise men—with a candle lit for each theme. Continue reading “Ten Christmas Terms Explained”
As millions of Americans will be counting their blessings and gathering with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving Day this week, I thought it would be fun to investigate the origins of several words commonly associated with the holiday. Please enjoy this post first published on Thanksgiving Day two years ago.
Thank comes from the Old English word thanc, which is derived from the prehistoric Germanic thangk, with a root idea of thoughtfulness. The English word think comes from the same root. It’s easy to see how our word for expressing gratitude originated from the concept of thinking or giving thoughtful consideration. A twelfth-century translation of Matthew 15:19 reads, “From the heart come evil thanks.” By the early sixteenth century the same verse was rendered, “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts” (KJV). To give thanks is to think about and express one’s gratitude for something. And what better way to say “thank you” than by enjoying a big feast.Continue reading “Five Thanksgiving Words”
Test yourself on the following use of apostrophes. It will be easy for some, a challenge for others. (Answers are below.)
Which is the correct way to write the photo caption?
(a) Here we are at the restaurant with our friends the Johnson’s.
(b) Here we are at the restaurant with our friends the Johnsons.
Which is the correct way to sign the Christmas card?
(a) Merry Christmas from the Zimbardos.
(b) Merry Christmas from the Zimbardo’s.
Which is correct?
(a) We enjoy watching movies about superhero’s.
(b) We enjoy watching movies about superheroes.
Which is correct?
(a) We had hamburgers and French fries for dinner.
(b) We had hamburger’s and French fry’s for dinner.
Which is correct?
(a) It’s easy to use apostrophes correctly.
(b) It’s easy to use apostrophe’s correctly.
What’s the punctuation rule? Adding apostrophe + s does not make a word or a name plural. Leave the poor apostrophe out of it. Just don’t do it. Leave it!
But there is one exception to the rule: When writing the plural of a letter, it can be helpful—and is acceptable—to use an apostrophe. For example, “Mind your p’s and q’s“; “Mississippi has four s’s, three i’s, and two p’s.”
Miscellaneous musings on our culture’s spoken and written language.
Facebook invited us to toss words into the dust bin when they created those cute little emoticons or emojis. Now, let me say from the get-go that I use those cute little emojis. I am a user. But what do they really mean? Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, and Angry. The words—and underlying concepts—are virtually meaningless.
Hang onto your britches and let me explain. FB invites us to express supposed emotions with a single symbol, to save us the time and mental effort involved in using vocabulary to formulate sentences to express thoughtful replies. No need to do that when we can express displeasure by inserting an angry-face emoticon, or astonishment with a wow-face emoticon—when we may not feel anything like true anger or astonishment, in which case we’re conveying pseudo emotions. They’re not real.