Monday, 3 May 2021

Hybrids, or the Greeks had half a word for it


The most common hybrid word is "television." It's formed from two languages: "tele-" from the Greek word for "far" and the Latin -derived "vision." The whole means something like "seeing from afar," which is not to be confused with "far-seeing."

Most hybrids in English are formed from a mixture of Latin and Greek components but it can be from any two languages. I specially like the vintage term "beatnik," where the suffix is Russian.

Both "homosexual" and "heterosexual are hybrids, with "homo-" and "hetero-" being Greek prefixes and "sexual" deriving from Latin.

The suffixes "-phobia," "-ology" and "-ectomy" are all Greek, meaning respectively "fear," "study" and "cutting out." So "claustrophobia," "sociology" and "tonsillectomy" are all hybrids. It would be fun to write a story using all these words.

The prefix "a-" as in "asexual," "amoral" etc. is Greek but is regularly combined with a Latin second part. It's known as a "privative," something that takes something away or "deprives" it of something.

"Automobile," "neonatal," "sociopath" ... all Graeco-Latin hybrids.


They aren't the same as "portmanteau" words, which are combinations of words or affixes from the same language. Lewis Carroll  was good at making these up - "chortle," a mixture of "chuckle" and "snort." "slithy" a combination of "lithe" and "slimy."

"Spork," "smog," "brunch" are all useful portmanteau words.

What are you favourite hybrids or portmanteaux?

Word of the week: microaggression

Pleasingly, this is also a hybrid: the Greek prefix meaning "small" and the Latin word for "attack."

So a microaggression is a "small attack." The term was coined over fifty years ago by a Harvard psychiatry professor, Chester M. Pierce. The reason it is so current now is that it is a very useful term for the small daily insults, misinformation and withholding of validation expressed in words and actions towards marginalised groups.  Not "minorities," since women are on the receiving end of many microaggressions and are in a slight numerical majority.

Microaggressions are everyday exchanges which, cumulatively, wear down the person on the receiving end: a person of colour constantly being asked "where are you really from?," a woman addressed by her first name or a diminutive while male colleagues are called Mr Whatever, a blind person finding that someone speaking to them raises their voice, a person in a wheelchair not being addressed at all but all questions directed to a companion, a black barrister mistaken for a defendant in court, transgender people not being referred to by their preferred pronouns and so on.


Monday, 26 April 2021


I was listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 the other morning when - shock, horror! - the presenter used a word incorrectly. I know, incredible, isn't it?

It was Justin Webb, I think, and he was interviewing someone about how long we would need to go on wearing masks and using other safety measures against COVID -19. Twice he said something along the lines of "but isn't all becoming a bit performative?" Husband and I both said, "he doesn't know what "performative" means - it means the opposite of what he thinks it does."

It took me right back to my Linguistics years at University College, London where Professor Michael Halliday taught us what a performative verb was. Basically, it does what it says on the tin. If someone says "I promise to marry you," or "I promise you a biscuit if you eat all your dinner," the very act of saying "I promise" means that you have made that promise. (Hence breach of promise lawsuits).

Here are some other examples:

I apologise for upsetting you (= I'm saying sorry now for upsetting you)

Smoking on the plane is forbidden (= this notice forbids you to smoke)

I swear to tell, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (= I am in the very act of promising to be truthful in my answers)

She named the ship Dreadnought (=  she gave the ship that name)

I accept your invitation (= I'm coming)

I advise you not to use that word in my presence (= I'm giving you my opinion of your choice of words)

There are some other verbs, like "confess," "like," "prefer," "declare," etc. which could be considered performative. Justin Webb clearly thinks it means "putting on a performance," or "following an empty  ritual." Shame on him.

Word of the week: Woman of Colour

My husband wants it to be "micro-aggression;" maybe next week. 

But I'm going with "woman of colour" because I keep hearing it today in relation to the winner of the Best Director Oscar yesterday, Chloé Zhao. Now, Ms Zhao is Chinese by parentage and by place of birth. Unless she has specifically asked to be referred to in this way I think it's a very peculiar choice. It makes it clear that what is meant is "non-white," which somehow makes it more racist, not less so.

Here  is my headline: Chloé Zhao wins best Director Oscar for Nomadland.

Tells you everything you need to know, doesn't it?

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Who needs Latin?

Last Monday I spent the whole day writing an assignment for my online course on cathedral architecture, about 14th century Lady chapels. It was one way to spend a Bank Holiday, I suppose, but that was why I didn't give you a Grammar Grandma post. I have spent most of today dealing with admin attendant on our house move, four months after it happened. One of the many reasons we intend never to move again.

I'm starting another online course, on the Wars of the Roses on 26th so there might be further hiatuses  but I am much more comfortable with that material, Plantagenets being like mother's milk to me, so I hope not to be so distracted.

And so to today's question, "who needs Latin?" Educational policy-makers decided decades ago that most of us didn't and dropped it from the curriculum of State schools long before their was a National one. If you went to an independent school, as I did (on a scholarship), the opposite decision was made. The two forms both started with French for a year and then the A stream added Latin and the less clever form were taught German. Isn't that disgraceful?

It took a while for me to fall in love with Latin but I chose to do it at A level and added Classical Greek a year later. I can honestly say I use them every day. But Latin is now seen as a great divider. Only horrible, snobbish, privately-educated people like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson use Latin tags and they do it to show off and make other people feel inferior.

You might well feel you know no Latin and never use it but if you've ever said or written "et cetera" or used "e.g". to mean "for example," had a "bonus"at work in addition to what you were paid "per annum," or even said a sporting event was one team or person "versus" another, you are using Latin.

You might talk about being "pro-" one political party and "anti-" another. You might take it for granted in reading or watching a crime story that suspects will have an "alibi." The victim of a murder will be subject to a "post mortem." A criminal might use an "alias."

And if you're a fan of the film Dead Poets Society, you will surely know "Carpe diem," usually translated as "seize the day," though the verb is more like "pluck" as you would do a flower. Your meetings at work will certainly have an "agenda" and you might need to analyse "data."

This "dead" language certainly gets about.

Word of the Week: Consort

A "consort" is the spouse of a reigning monarch, at least in the UK. Only Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, has been officially styled as "Prince Consort;" the recently deceased Prince Philip was never given that honour. Indeed for ten years he wasn't a prince; although born one, he renounced all titles along with his Greek citizenship before marrying Princess Elizabeth in 1947 and was styled HRH the Duke of Edinburgh until 1957 when he was again given the title of "Prince."

Of course "consort" can also be a verb, usually with a rather negative association, as Oxford defines it: "habitually associate with (someone), typically with the disapproval of others."

Monday, 5 April 2021

No post today

Grandma is not just recovering from a surfeit of chocolate but has had to write a university assignment for submission tomorrow. Back next week.

Monday, 29 March 2021

That or which?

This is a request post, to satisfy the need of one Philip Ardagh. He is in want of something to dispel uncertainty about when to use "that" and when "which" in introducing a relative clause. Happy to oblige, Philip, but you'll need to pay attention; this is a tricky one.

Indeed, the acknowledged authority on English usage, Henry Watson Fowler, said in 1926: "The relations between that, who and which have come to us from our forefathers as an odd jumble, and plainly show that the language has not been constructed by a master-builder who could create each part to do the work required of it, neither overlapped nor overlapping; far from that, its parts have had to grow as they could."

The distinction is between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, or in older terminology, defining and non-defining clauses. To make things easier for Philip:

Not Philip Ardagh

"The beard that I saw coming round the door preceded an extremely tall, bespectacled children's author," contains a restrictive or defining clause. It refers to that beard and no other of the many I might have observed during the day.

"The beard, which he had been growing since puberty, now measured twelve inches long," is non-restrictive or non-defining clause. It provides some additional information about the beard (though perhaps not about Philip's own beard; I made this bit up).

Word of the week: garden office

This is a very personal word of the week. In our new house - or rather outside it - I have a garden office. It is a stone-built room that shares a party wall with our garage. It already had a door, which is a bit of a pre-requisite for any room, but we added a window. Then it had to be insulated, painted, shelved and the WiFi made to work before I could start to use it. I took up residence a week ago. 

Last November, we ordered a garden shed, a humble wooden 7 x 5ft building to house garden tools, lawn mower etc. We were told it wouldn't be delivered till May 2021! We couldn't think why, until we realised the company that makes sheds also makes garden offices, which can be quite elaborate, with not just windows and doors but verandahs and other fancy extras. And since the first lockdown and the exhortation to work from home, everyone has been buying them!


Monday, 22 March 2021

A marked improvement

You may have missed the story last autumn that the OED had to revise its definition of the term "woman" after equality campaigners challenged the use of "bitch," "bint" and "wench" as synonyms.

An open letter signed by Maria Beatrice Giovanardi and others from Women's Aid, the Women's Equality Party and several linguists began:

"Did you know that if you are a woman, the dictionary will refer to you as a “bitch” or a “maid”? And that a man is “a person with the qualities associated with males, such as bravery, spirit, or toughness” or “a man of honour” and the “man of the house”?

These are, according to the dictionary, the synonyms for “woman” alongside a wealth of derogatory and equally sexist examples – “I told you to be home when I get home, little woman” or “Don’t be daft, woman!”'

There was also a protest that the entry for "man" was much longer than the one for "woman." Among the many things that interest me in this story, which concludes well with the OED revising its examples, is that "woman" might be - at least linguistically - the marked form and "man" the unmarked.

This is the argument that used to be jocularly characterised as "man embraces woman." In other words, "man" is both the generic and specific term, grammatically speaking. I always found it specious, since the famous example "man, being a mammal, breastfeeds his young" always makes people jump.

Ida Frisell published some research at Lund university which expands this idea.

Words like "fireman," "policeman," "spokesman," "chairman,"  are gradually being replaced by "firefighter," "police officer," "spokesperson," "chair(person),"  though many people really object to the "-person" suffix and regard it as political correctness gone mad.

But, back to marked and unmarked. The unmarked form is often male: dog, tiger, lion; if we said "a pack of bitches" we would mean something different from "a pack of dogs." "The tigress was dangerous" refers to a specific gender of the animal - same with lioness.

The marked form is sometimes male: we say ducks, sheep, cows, not drakes, rams and bulls, unless we are being specific about the gender. No-one says, "I'm going to the park to feed the drakes" or "try counting rams to get to sleep."

There has been a movement away from using feminising suffixes in recent years, with "stewardess" being replaced by "flight attendant" or both sexes using "actor." I certainly remember with distaste a trend lasting into the 1960s to refer to female students as "undergraduettes," but that was as much about the users' linguistic ignorance as it was about feminism.

Tsar Nicholas ll of Russia


Word of the week: Tsar

Prompted by news that the Queen has appointed a "diversity tsar" to modernise the monarchy's approach to race, after Megan Markle's revelations in the interview she and her husband gave to Oprah Winfrey. The word "tsar" derives from the Latin "Caesar" and was used in Slavic countries for their supreme leader. 

Now you can be a tsar of anything. Maybe I'll be appointed Language Tsar? And perhaps change my surname to Hoffperson? It's a thought.

Monday, 15 March 2021

"Shudder" words

Vocabulary again and from that rich source, Gransnet. This time "words that make you shudder," prompted by a poster's son-in-law's visceral reaction to the word "moist." He is not alone. In 2012, university researchers in Ohio and Texas, ran a study to find out why "moist" was such an unpopular word (about 20% of the population can't stand the word). Possibilities considered were negative sexual connotations, combination of phonemes  and the way that pronouncing the word forces the face into a kind of grimace. Reactions were affected by age, general squeamishness or neuroticism and not a response to sound alone ("foist," "hoist" and "rejoiced" elicited no such reactions). 

There is a Facebook page "I hate the word moist" with around 3,000 followers.  Even the counterbalancing associations with "cake that is not dry" can't deflect the haters. It's known as "word aversion" and we all have our pet hates. On Gransnet many respondents said, "I can't even bring myself to write the word." But they did and responses ran to 14 pages!

I broke them down into categories:

Associations with the word meanings

Mucous, phlegm, snot, sputum,  vomit, discharge - sorry, everyone!


Pass (away), toilet, love handles, pensioner, girls (for breasts)


The get go, train station, guys, "you do the math," gift (as a verb), movie 


Chrimbo, hubby, fur baby, hollibobs, comfy, yummy, babe, tummy, bestie

Class differences

Lounge, serviette, settee, sweet or afters (for pudding), "pardon?" and possibly nanny, nan or nana for "grandmother"

Clearly "U" and "Non-U" live on.

Nancy Mitford


gob, belly, bog and all swearwords

Corporate speak

Going forward, blue sky thinking, reach out 

Grammatical tics

"of" for "have," "so" at the beginning of sentences, "haitch," "off of," "less" for "fewer," "like" as a hesitation marker.

Elon Musk
Some seemed quite random. "Elon Musk" for instance or an aversion, by several posters, to "all the trimmings" about a meal. Actually, several didn't like "meal." Others objected to overuse of trendy words like "woke" or coy expressions/beliefs like "the rainbow bridge." Lots didn't like "kids" or "fall pregnant," which might also be a class thing.

Anyway, please tell me your "shudder" words in the Comments below. Mine are "hubby," "banter," "prank" and "parboil."

Word of the week: Vigil

It comes from a Latin word meaning "staying awake."  In the Middle Ages in England a squire would spend the night keeping vigil, bathing, fasting and praying until the morning when he would be knighted. In Christian liturgy it means the night before a major feast: the Easter vigil used to be at midnight on Easter Saturday, though it is usually earlier now. Likewise, Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

But it has come to have a strong secular meaning as a silent gathering to mourn the death of a person, such as Sarah Everard, or in commemoration of an event.

A vigil is not a protest or demonstration, although it may contain elements of both because of what the mourning stands for.

Monday, 8 March 2021

A heart-warming story

The word "cliché" comes from a term used in printing. It means in one sense a cluster of words that can be predicted, something that would speed the task up in the long-winded task of typesetting, putting letters into a "forme." If you like, it was an early kind of predictive text. If someone wrote "red as a ..." it was more likely to be followed by "rose" than "a screaming baby's face," for example.

The word itself is the past participle of the French verb "clicher," which means "click." I have seen various explanations that the term referred to a clicking sound made during the process of forming a "stereotype," which was a whole page of pre-set text, which could be used over and again. How interesting that two things writers are encouraged to avoid - clichés and stereotypes - should both come from processes that made printers' lives easier! 

Anyway, the transferred meaning of "cliché" is a tired idea ,expressed in an over-used and hackneyed way. "A heart-warming story," defined, tongue-in-cheek as "one with a dog in it," is a cliché. So is "heart-rending" (though the modern regular mis-use of "heart-rendering," in which, presumably, the organ is melted down to a gooey liquid, might escape the charge).

The more that is written, the harder it is to find a new way of saying something. Wikipedia tells me it was Gérard de Nerval who said, "The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile." Here are some clichés for you:

 "Hot as hell,""Cold as ice," Light as a feather,"  "High as a kite," "Fit as a fiddle," "White as snow," "Green with envy,"  "Stubborn as a mule," "Quiet as a mouse," "Brave as a lion." 

All these are similes, a trope where something is compared to something else. But there are many other forms of cliché - mostly folksy and trite ideas like "time is a great healer" and "don't get mad, get even." Of course just because something is trite doesn't mean it isn't true, a point often made about clichés.

What is the cliché you most often find yourself about to use and do you have any favourites?

Word of the week: Reform

(There have been a lot of words this week already, which have curtailed my time for a Grammar Grandma post. I have been writing an assignment for the online course on medieval English cathedrals so my mind has been full of words like "crocket," "Romanesque,""rib vaults," and "arcades."

But these are currently personal to me.) 

At my college there was sometimes an item on the dinner menu called "Reformed lamb chops." (I was not a vegetarian then). I mused every time on why something as innocent as a lamb needed reforming and how it would help the dish if they truly repented. But then I was studying English Literature and mused a lot about language even then.

So I suppose these culinary delights were actually "re-formed," though why anyone would want to take apart a lamb chop to re-form it is equally beyond me. The point is we use the word "reform" without thinking of its original meaning and now there is a political party called Reform UK. I've known this for a while but it came to my attention today because Nigel Farage is stepping down as its leader and Richard Tice, co-founder with Arron Banks of Leave UK, is taking his place.

Reform UK is the successor to the Brexit party. Inherent in the idea of reformation is the idea of improvement. I will leave it at that.



Monday, 1 March 2021

Your Honour ...

Today's post is about Honorifics. You know, that long menu of courtesy titles from which you have to pick how you would like to be addressed. It was prompted by last week's news about Mr Potato Head, of whom more anon.

I was very keen to have the courtesy title Ms after 1972 when I got married, because neither Miss nor Mrs was correct. I could not be a married Miss and Mrs Hoffman suggested I had married myself! My bank couldn't understand it and I had to change my account name from Mary Hoffman to Mary Hoffman. My parents couldn't understand it, until I explained it was like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. My mother-in-law, who had the same name as I was being encouraged to adopt (as did her successor) didn't understand it and sent gorgeous flowers to our honeymoon hotel addressed to Mr and Mrs B,,,,,


That was largely about the lack of surname change but the "courtesy" of giving me a title and surname which is not mine persists 48+ years later on some greetings cards, with an implied rebuke that I should have followed convention (particularly if the sender did so herself).

With some struggle I got myself the first British passport to allow Ms as the title (I think they don't have them now). Well, maybe not the first but in the first cohort, after making a fuss.

On one of my more memorable hours long calls with BT in the past, a lovely Geordie customer service person encouraged me to choose "Lady" and I was "Lady Hoffman' on bills for some years. It's quite a nice fantasy to be a baroness but I'm happy with Ms really.

Someone people hate it and say they can't pronounce it. (Nonsense - it's "muz" in the UK, "miz" in the US). The New York Times didn't recognise it till 1986. Gloria Steinem launched Ms. magazine in 1969, two years before I joined the Women's Movement and three before I married so I was pretty what we would now call "woke."

As late as 2017 this article mentions women thinking that the "Ms" answer to the "is it Miss or Mrs?" question means the respondent is being rude or has something to hide.  She might be a divorcée - or even a lesbian! (shock, horror). Do men think this? 

So against the Miss or Mrs conundrum am I that it was a motivating factor behind considering doing a PhD at my Alma Mater (or DPhil at Oxford).  But it would now cost me £4-5K in college fees, not to mention the tutorial costs. I shall just have to wait for an honorary doctorate but would love to adopt "Dr."

Genuine female holders of Doctorates, not to mention medics have this escape route as a reward for many years of study. It means they don't have to reveal their marital status, a privilege men have always enjoyed. Other academics might be addressed at Professor, clergy as Rev, judges as Justice etc. And there is a whole Burke's Peerage-worth of honorifics when it comes to nobles and royalty.

Of course, as with gender neutral pronouns, we now have the gender neutral courtesy titles: Mx, Ind. or Misc. It might be assumed that users of these courtesy titles are non-binary but beware assumptions (see above).

Other countries have already dropped the assumption that women have to reveal their marital status in their titles without taking a new one. "Mademoiselle" has virtually vanished from France, where all women are now "Madame" and in Italy they are all "Signora."

I was prompted to this post by a radio report that Mr Potato Head was dropping his honorific. It ended with a reference to "single sex potato families," which I could not resist. But it appears that news of the re-branding might be premature.

Word of the week: Henge

Not usually found on its own, the affix "-henge," most often known through the neolithic monument in Wiltshire, "Stonehenge," is a back formation. It gradually got attached to other words, just as the "-gate" from "Watergate" is used to mean any kind of political scandal. (I haven't seen "Test and Tracegate" yet but it's only a matter of time).

But apparently Stonehenge is not a "true henge" as its ditch lies outside its bank. Baffling, isn't it?

Our oldest daughter used the word "siliconhenge" for one of her websites/email addresses. Good coinage that.

(All images from Wikimedia Commons)

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

You say tomato...

This week I heard Emma Barnett, the new presenter of  Woman's Hour pronounce "mores" to rhyme with "whores," rather than with "forays." It jolted me a bit, as temporarily I had no idea what she meant. Then, on Facebook, someone asked what pronunciations annoyed people and opened the floodgates.

This got me thinking about pronunciation (it has a "nun" in the middle of it, btw; it's not "pronounciation).

I'm not talking about accents; that's different. I have a friend in Liverpool who is very annoyed by the long 'a' of Received Pronunciation (RP) and to him it sounds as if southerners are putting an "r" in "masks" and "France." 

The top hate in the Facebook thread was "chester draws" for "chest of drawers" but I'm not sure I would hear the difference in RP. The two I chose were "lasanyer" for "lasagne," as if it were French and not Italian, and "longeray" for "lingerie." I realise these are both non-English words. For the same reason, I changed from dubbing to subtitles to watch Lupin on Netflix because it was distracting the way the American dub artists said "Lupon" and not "Lupan."

Americans and Brits (and doubtless Aussies and Kiwis too) pronounce the same English words differently, as in the famous Gershwin song, Let's call the whole thing off (though I have never heard anyone say "pohtahto" or "ersters").

Just think about "vitamin," "schedule," "vase," "leisure" and "missile." When there was an American audiobook of one of my titles, I was amazed to discover "shone" pronounced as "shown."

What pronunciations feel "wrong" to you?

Words of the week: Irreversible and roadmap

For a start, "irreversible" does not mean what members of the cabinet think it does!  It means "unable to be reversed or undone," such as (most) vasectomies and tattoos. What politicians are expressing is a desire  not to have another lockdown. Most things are reversible and this government should know this more than most after all the vacillations, U-turns and policy changes.

"Roadmap" is interesting. A Guardian reader pointed out on their Letters page that hardly anyone uses one any more; everyone has a SatNav, on their smartphone if not actually in their car. But anyway, a map is not a route, even if politicians are using them to mean the same.