Tag Archives: language

The lunacy of language

ENGLISH LANGUAGE: Asylum for the verbally insane

Unfortunately the author of this clever poem on the English language is currently unknown. Nonetheless, here’s a quick look at the lunacy of the English language.

We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes.
One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.

You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice,
Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
Why shouldn’t the plural of pan be called pen?

If I speak of my foot and show you my feet,
And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?

Then one may be that, and three would be those,
Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.

We speak of a brother and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine: she, shis and shim!

Let’s face it – English is a crazy language. There is neither egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England. We take English for granted, but if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square, and a guineapig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writer’s write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham. Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend. If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? Sometimes I think all the folks who grew up speaking English, should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane.

In what other language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? We ship by truck but send cargo by ship. We have noses that run and feet that smell. And how can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out, and in which an alarm goes off by going on. So if Father is Pop, how come Mother isn’t Mop? And that is just the beginning – even though this is the end.

Cape Town and slavery

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CAPE TOWN: How slavery has influenced Cape cuisine, architecture, language and Cape Town traditions

by Niki Moore

Free me!IT would be irresponsible to ignore our most significant event in decades even in a travel column, so this week’s effort is about the universal franchise – or rather, the lack of it.

One group of South Africans never had a vote, never had any freedom at all, and yet their contribution to our society has been priceless. These are the slaves of the 17th century Cape Colony.

The Western Cape has its unique character because of slaves. There are still reminders of slavery around Cape Town: the Slave Lodge in Adderley Street (now a museum), the Slave Stone where slaves were displayed prior to being sold, the Slave Tree where they waited their turn to go on the block. But their influence goes much deeper than physical relics.

A brief history lesson
The very first consignment of slaves arrived at the Cape on the ship Amersfoort on March 28, 1658. They had been captured by the Dutch from a Portuguese slaver that was on its way to Brazil, filled with captives from Angola. This was the first of only three shiploads of slaves from Africa. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) controlled the Cape and had extensive holdings in the East Indies, so it made sense for slaves to come from Indonesia and Malaya. And they did – thousands of them. Within 50 years of the establishment of a victualling station at the Cape, slaves outnumbered free men.

VOC shipFor 176 years (until slavery was abolished) the economy of the Cape depended on slaves. They worked in homes, on the farms, in shops and factories, on building sites. Officially, almost 7 000 slaves were brought to the new colony on VOC-sponsored slave ships, but many more arrived with Dutch East India officials returning home from Batavia. Because the Netherlands outlawed slavery, the officials sold their slaves in the Cape before embarking on the last leg of their return voyage home.

The life of a Cape slave
A slave’s lot was not a happy one. If they survived the journey (an ‘acceptable’ casualty rate for slaves was 15%), they died of overwork and malnutrion, torture and mistreatment. Many committed suicide. The hardy ones existed entirely at the whim of their masters – punished harshly, executed, married off or sold willy-nilly.

It is hard to think that anything good can come out of such sustained human misery, but amazingly, the Cape has some reminders of slavery that are testaments to the resilience of the human spirit.

Cape cuisine
koeksisterSlaves were cooks and kitchen staff, and they had a huge influence on Cape menus. Our national dishes such as bredie, koeksisters, bobotie, sosaties and tameletjie (toffee) all have Malay influence. C. Louis Leipoldt – a writer and keen cook – was the first Afrikaner to recognise and formalise Cape cuisine, a mixture of East and West.

Cape architecture
Initially slaves only did menial work, but as slave populations stabilised they were trained in skilled occupations. Slaves were taught to build houses in the Dutch style, but they introduced many little Eastern flourishes in the ornate stone pediments and ornamental gardens. The Castle, Groot Constantia, Vergelegen and Simonsig were all built by slaves.

Cape slang
It is believed that Afrikaans developed as a ‘kitchen-language’ – a simplified form of Dutch that slaves learned in order to communicate with their Dutch-speaking masters. Proof of this, perhaps, is the fact that the first Afrikaans was written in Arabic script, and the language is enriched by many Arabic words such as piesang (banana), bredie (stew), baklei (fight), soebat (to plead).

Slave names
There are a surprising number of people who – whether they are aware of it or not – are descended from slaves. A dead give-away is the name: slaves were always given names by their owners, and unimaginative people would choose an easy name such as the month in which the slave was bought (Februarie, September), names of Roman heroes such as Cupido or Hannibal, biblical names such as Moses and Solomon, or whimsical names describing some attribute such as Fortuijn (if the slave was expensive), Witbooi (if they were light-skinned), or from their region of origin such as Basson, Claassen, or Snyman.

Slaves were Muslim and introduced their religion into the daily life of the Cape. The Cape Peninsula is ringed by 20 kramats, or holy sepulchres, that have fulfilled a 250-year-old prophecy that a ‘circle of Islam’ will be formed around Cape Town.

Cape slave traditions
Some current traditions in Cape Town date back to the days of slavery. On the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday women cut up orange leaves in the mosques. This slave tradition, known as ‘rampie-sny’, is unique to Cape Muslims.

The most enduring relic today is the Kaapse Klopse, or Tweede Nuwe Jaar. The slaves got this one day a year off, perhaps because their masters were too busy recovering from hangovers to need their services. Annually, on January 2, the descendants of slaves take to the city streets with bands and dances. The bright street parades and music are a joyous celebration of life over adversity, and a custom as unique to Cape Town as the noon gun and the flower-sellers on Adderley Street.

Now wasn’t that Quite Interesting ?

  • Used with kind permission of Niki Moore – a freelance feature writer and reporter currently living in St Lucia. You can read her original article “Throwing off the shackles” here.

Historical truths behind English sayings

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Do you ever use sayings such as “saved by the bell” or hear your grandmother squawk something like, “Heavens, it raining cats and dogs outside!” A lot of people still do yet have no idea where such phrases originate from.

I got a little history lesson the other day which explained the dark truth behind some of these popular figures of speech. I thought I’d share them with those of you who are interested in the English language. Slip them into conversation next time you’re at the pub, or tell granny what she’s actually referring to.

DID YOU KNOW…
1. Why brides carry a bouquet at weddings:It was also believed that flowers would help ward off the plague
England back in the day was a smelly place to live. Most people only bathed once a year (usually in May). Thus most people got married in June because their BO (body odour) wasn’t too bad one month down the line. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide any stench.

Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

2. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!”
Please don't throw me away!Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had first dibs on the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last to be bathed were the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it.

Hence the saying, “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”ouch

3. “The rule of thumb”
Women had it pretty tough in the old English days. Husbands were allowed to beat their wives by law for anything that they considered to be disobedient. The only condition was the phrase “rule of thumb” (derived from an old English law), which stated that you couldn’t beat your wife with anything thicker than your thumb.

4. “It’s raining cats and dogs”
mmrff grrr hmphThe majority of medieval Brits lived in hovels that had thatched roofs with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip off the roof.

Hence the saying “it’s raining cats and dogs.”

5. Why the poor were “dirt poor”Please sir, can I have some more?
There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. Besides having bugs, animal droppings and other crap fall from the roof the floors were dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt such as thresh (straw) which was kept in place using wooden planks (hence the saying “threshold”). But for the poor it was plain dirt.

Hence the saying “dirt poor.”

6. “Bringing home the bacon”
The dirt poor mostly ate vegetables that they would stew and re-stew in a large cauldron over the fire. Often leftovers would remain in Bringing home the baconthe pot for days on end. However, on special days they would sometimes obtain pork, and when visitors came over they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could “bring home the bacon.” They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around on their dirt floors and “chew the fat.”

7. Food for thought… or possible death

  • Those with a little money had plates made of pewter. Food with a high acid content caused some of the lead to leach into the food, causing lead poisoning and often death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.Bread
  • Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or “upper crust.”
  • Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers right out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink, or chew the fat, and wait and see if the poor sod would wake up.

Hence the custom of holding a “wake.”

8. “Saved by the bell”
This is a reference to boxing and quite literally means to be saved from a beating by the bell that signals the end of a boxing round. The saying does not originate from people being buried alive. However, this was not an uncommon occurance, and several people were so afraid of this happening to them, that they took measures against it – such as by tying a bell connected to a rope around their hands. Here’s how the urban myth goes:

England is small – very small relative to the huge population at the time. But the death toll was high and gravediggers started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up old coffins, take the bones to a “bone-house”, and reuse the graves.

I'm not dead!!When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 were found to have scratch marks on the inside, meaning 1 in 25 people had been buried alive. To prevent this from happening they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground, and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the “graveyard shift”) to listen for the bell.

Thus, any unfortunate drunks could be “saved by the bell!”

  • If you know the origin of any other sayings please share them below and help spread a little knowledge!

Related posts:
Friday the 13th superstitions
Historical truths behind English sayings II