Looking Up a Gun: Common English Words with Nordic Origins

2012-11-05 by . 2 comments

Old Norse words in the English language are much more numerous than many would suspect. Many common words such as  guncraze, and equip are of Nordic origin. Because the two languages were so similar, they have many loanwords. Often, they were mutually intelligible to quite a degree. In this post, I’m going to analyze the origins of these three common English words rooted in the Old Norse language.

There were a two main ways that Old Norse words made their way into the English language. First, between 865 and 954 (the Danelaw), the Vikings colonized eastern and northern England. During this time, many of their Old Norse words entered the Old English and have been in use  since. Other words entered the Norman French and were passed on from there to Middle English during the Norman Conquest of 1066. The parallels between Old Norse and Old English facilitated the trading of words between the two languages.


In Nordic culture, the name Gunnhildr was fairly common. It had the meaning “war battle maid” and is a cognate to the more modern name, “Gunhild”. In 1330, Windsor Castle had an inventory of it’s munitions made. In the inventory, a specific siege engine was called the Lady Gunilda, a shortening of Gunnhildr. Later, the word gonnilde, yet another variation of Gunnhildr, became more generalized to mean “cannon” in Middle English. By the mid-fourteenth century, these had been shortened to gunne. It did not yet have the modern meaning of “gun”, though. It meant simply “an engine of war that throws rocks, arrows or other missiles”. So, the ballista and the trebuchet both fell into this definition. It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that gunne came to mean “firearm” (because that’s when firearms first came to major use). Around that time, it was finally shortened to “gun”.


Old Norse had a word krasa, which meant “shatter”.  Around the mid-14th century, it entered the Middle French language as the word ecraser, which meant “to squash”. This evolved into both the modern French écraser, and the Middle English crasen, which meant “to break in pieces; to crack”. It also had a  second meaning, “to be diseased or deformed”. Crasen evolved into the modern English crase (now obselete), however, it only carried the first meaning, “to break in pieces; to crack”. However, crasen evolved into another modern English word, craze. This carried the second meaning, “to be diseased or deformed”. However, it had evolved into the meaning “mental breakdown”. The current meaning of the word is “to become insane; go mad”, not a far cry from “mental breakdown”. The first reference to craze meaning “mania, fad” was in 1813. However, the original meaning, “to make cracks”, is still in use a with a slightly different meaning, “to make small cracks on the surface of”. This is used when referring to ceramic pottery.


The Nordic word skip meant “ship”. Skipa, another Norse word was derived from it, with the meaning “fit out a ship”. In the twelfth century, it entered the Old French as esquiper. In the 1520s, it was used in the Middle French as équiper. It meant “to supply, fit out”, thus it was no longer specific to ships. In the late sixteenth century, it made it’s way into English as Esquippe. In the seventeenth century,  a p was dropped and the word became esquip. Later in the century, the s was dropped and it was shortened to “equip”, as we know it today. It was spelled acquip during that time, but that spelling never really caught on.

Estimates vary, but range from 15-25% of English words (non-scientific) originate from Old Norse. Given the size of the English language, that is a quite a considerable amount. Only Latin and French contribute more words to English than Old Norse. Our language owes a great deal to those ruthless Scandinavian seafarers. Without their contributions, I would not be able to say, “He often fumbled for words, which amused people greatly.” (Kylfdi mᴊǫk til orðanna, ok hǫfðu margir menn þat mᴊǫk at spotti.)


Filed under Etymology

Prescriptivism and Descriptivism

2012-10-15 by . 13 comments

Imagine you are reading something on the Internet (I know, it’s a stretch), and you come across the following passage:

I want to be sure that you and me are on the same page. When you ask how I feel about grammar, you are begging the question, Are you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist? The problem is that that question isn’t even something sensible to really ask about. It think it would help you if those definitions were reviewed.

How would you characterize the quality of the writing?

  • It is just fine
  • It has some style issues
  • It has some grammar issues
  • It is horrid writing for a number of reasons, including both style and grammar

Of course, the correct answer is… well, hold on, now. It’s not quite that simple.

A Prescriptivist’s View

If you cringed while reading the example passage above and ached to break out the red pen, then chances are that you fall into the prescriptivist camp. The general take of a prescriptivist is that there are rules that define how language should be used, and that mistakes result from when those rules are broken. You might hear this idea of prescriptive linguistics described as normative, which means that the rules are based on normal usage, and they determine the way things (spelling, grammar, etc.) ought to be. Some examples of prescriptive rules are:

  • Don’t end a sentence with a preposition
  • Don’t split infinitives
  • Don’t use the passive voice
  • Don’t use the pronoun ‘I’ in object position

Of course, not all prescriptivists agree on what the rules (and exceptions) should be. Many derive their rules from authoritative works, like Fowler’s 1926 work A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, or Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, now in its 53rd year of printing. Others rely on their intuitions, informed by the forces of society and class, or aphorisms passed on by their elders (my grandmother was fond of saying, Cakes are ‘done’, people are ‘finished’!). The English Language and Usage Stack Exchange site has seen many questions on prescriptivist rules, for example:

The keen observer will have noticed that prescriptive rules tend to cover not just what is allowed by language, but also (and often) what is preferred. The rules are not restricted to grammar, but can extend to concerns like spelling and formatting (all of which are, for lack of a better phrase, elements of style). For example, a prescriptivist might tell you that a sentence beginning after a colon must start with a capital letter, or that the word ‘like’ should not be used as a subordinating conjunction.

A Descriptivist’s View

You may have gotten through the passage at the beginning of this post and thought that there was nothing wrong with it. Or, perhaps you thought it was not the best prose you’d ever seen, but that there weren’t any real errors, simply style choices that you wouldn’t have made. Maybe you even saw some things that you really didn’t like, but know that sometimes people choose to write that way, and as long as it’s understandable, you can deal with it. If any of that sounds like you, then you are probably somewhat of a descriptivist.

The idea behind descriptive linguistics is that a language is defined by what people do with it. In other words, you begin by studying and listening to native speakers. Then, when you notice patterns in the ways that they communicate, you can record those patterns as guesses about the principles of a language. If you rarely (or never) observe someone breaking those patterns, then your guess is more likely to be an accurate representation of the language. Those guesses are called hypotheses, and when they are well-supported by evidence, they can be accepted as correctness conditions for a language. For example, a correctness condition about Standard English is the notion of a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) word order. It is very difficult (if not impossible) to observe a native English speaker saying something like, “*I an apple ate,” so it is a safe bet that if you hear that, you aren’t hearing Standard English. Of course, it also means that if enough people start using a new construction, then your grammatical model should adapt to accommodate it.

The main difference between a correctness condition and a prescriptive rule is that a rule is, by its very nature, regulatory. A correctness condition, on the other hand, is constitutive. I like to think about it in terms of cooking: If I serve chicken cacciatore with raw chicken, that’s an error. The dish is still chicken cacciatore, but I’ve made it incorrectly. I’ve broken a prescriptive rule that governs how to make the dish (specifically, the one that says that the chicken should be braised until it is cooked through rather than served raw). On the other hand, if I make cacciatore with rabbit instead of chicken, that’s not chicken cacciatore with mistakes. It’s simply rabbit cacciatore. A descriptivist would look at the situation and conclude that cooking alla cacciatora is defined by searing meat in oil, then simmering it with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and seasoning, rather than by the choice of meat (perhaps with a caveat that some meats are more common than others).

The Middle Ground

So, you seem to be at an impasse. On the one hand, you have generations of grade school English teachers rightly warning their pupils that people might chuckle at them if they use the word ‘irregardless’. On the other hand, you have the scientific rigor of the modern linguistic community touting descriptivism as the torch-bearer of truth and enlightenment. Are you doomed to choose between a democracy of solecisms and a library of thousand-page tomes of writer’s regulations? Are things really that bleak?

Of course not. You have the luxury of picking the view that suits you at any moment. You can leave it to the descriptivists to confirm what makes up the language, and the prescriptivists to guide you on how to make it flow sweetly and clearly into the minds of others. Members of these groups tend to bicker and say that the others are destroying the language or poisoning the minds of the children. It is rarely true that these claims are valid. As long as you keep your wits about you, it is not so hard to tell when a descriptivist is being overly forgiving of bad writing or a prescriptivist is blindly spouting advice on language that hasn’t been relevant for the last sixty years. Neither is it a bad idea to keep an open mind towards new ways of saying something, or consult a style manual for tips about how to communicate your ideas effectively. As is so often the case, the most important advice in the ‘prescriptivist vs. descriptivist’ debate is to keep your head up and use the right tool for the job.

Going Further (or is it farther?)

Interested in diving deeper into the matter? Here are some resources that I think are interesting:

Filed under Linguistics

That vs Which: A Pragmatic Approach

2012-10-01 by . 6 comments

 “There’s glory for you!”

H. Dumpty, founder of linguistic pragmatics

If you’re looking for a balanced discussion of the  That vs Who/whom/whose/which controversy, go here. I’m not interested.

A hundred years ago the Fowlers put forward a modest proposal. Linguistic bureaucrats elevated this proposal to a Rule, linguistic libertarians resisted; and today the Fowlers’ proposal is an Issue hotly contested by Conservative and Liberal ideologues.

I have no taste for political disputation. While my sympathies lie with the Liberals (who in the Fowlers’ day would have been the Reactionaries), my experience is that I am never profoundly disturbed by the actual usage of the Conservatives (who a hundred years ago were the Radicals). And neither side is going to budge from its position, each is deaf to the other’s arguments and writes or redacts according to its own judgment; so I see little point in rehashing the arguments.

I’d like instead to adopt a non-partisan and non-ideological approach, and come at the T/W question from a different angle. I’m a writer, my concern is to make the most effective use I can of the tools which come to my hand. The Fowlers themselves grounded their proposal in the economic argument that “if we are to be at the expense of maintaining two different relatives, we may as well give each of them definite work to do (The King’s English, 1908).” I may hope, then, that others will find some value in exploring the pragmatic and non-doctrinal considerations which govern my usage in my writing.

“Writing”, I say; but the spoken language is both historically and methodologically prior to the written, and most of us aspire to something of the spontaneity and freshness presumed to reside in oral usage; so it may be useful to see what ordinary speech tells us.

I happen to possess a modest corpus of semiformal speech—videotapes of impromptu interviews with a dozen college-educated U.S. speakers from various regions and callings. Scanning the transcripts for uses of relative pronouns (and consulting the tapes where there was any ambiguity) yielded three interesting findings:

  1. Ordinary U.S. speech does not distinguish lexically between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. Indeed, the paratactic construction imposed by improvisation makes the distinction itself difficult to maintain. How do you categorize a clause which is clearly, to the ear, an afterthought, but which could make sense as a restrictive clause? —Here’s an example; the speaker is discussing a table of numbers (a dash represents a pause):
 The difference between 154?—(points) that is actually available?—and  and the 149—(points) which the budgeting exercise produced?— is another opportunity for life insurance . . .
  1. All the W forms are very rare: that is absolutely predominant by at least fifty to one. If the W forms disappeared from the spoken language they would never be missed.
  2. Again and again I heard that after a clause followed by a pause (and sometimes repetitions of that)—and then the speaker settled on what he was going to say—which might be a relative clause (restrictive or not), an adverbial clause, or a clause to which that was entirely irrelevant.

So—should the written language follow Liberal logic, and abandon the W forms altogether?

Of course not. No craftsman forsakes the use of a tool simply because amateurs do not use it. Finding 3. above is instructive: speakers prefer that because it’s the all-purpose tool, adequate in all circumstances. But the writer has an entire workbench of specialized tools, and leisure to choose between them.

Should we then unite behind the Conservatives, and use T and W to distinguish restrictive and non-restrictive clauses?

Again, I think not. The usage is not distinctive either for the ordinary reader or for many of the ideologues. And it is redundant: all of us distinguish these clause-types by means of the comma. The T/W distinction is unnecessary here.

Let’s instead use the W forms where they’re most useful: in any relative clause. The W distinctions, between who, whom, whose and which, allow us to signal reference and syntax more clearly and more smoothly. When it can be done gracefully, omit the relative pronoun altogether; but let’s use that as a relative pronoun only under pressure of what the Fowlers call “considerations of euphony”.

This not only exploits the W distinctions more fully, it makes that more effective and efficient, too. that is horribly overworked: it takes 17 columns in the OED to discriminate its uses. No word except to is more likely to appear multiple times in a sentence with different meanings. As Dumpty noted, that comes at a cost: no word is more likely to confuse the reader’s eye and mind.

I have for thirty-five years avoided the use of that as a relative pronoun. I use W forms almost exclusively, in all contexts: marketing copy, stage plays, voiceovers, business proposals, legal drafts, training videos, my doctoral dissertation.

And you know what?—I’ve never been called out for it. Not by clients—not by actors—not by academics.

I commend this approach to your consideration.

“Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”



Filed under Grammar

Typography: Striking Language (part 1)

Typography is all around us, every minute of every day.  I’m willing to bet that, this blog post notwithstanding, there are at least five different typefaces within reach of you at this moment.  I’m hedging my bet, because it’s probably closer to ten or fifteen.  You may think little or not at all of typography, but it is equally important to language as the spoken word.  By definition, typography is the study, use, and design of identical repeated letterforms.  Throughout history, these forms have taken shape and morphed from the shifting popularity and availability of writing implements and surfaces.

Language itself is rooted in visual communication.  Before we had language, we communicated with imagery.  The story of typography begins with man’s initial use of petroglyphs (rock engravings), pictographs (cave paintings), and pictograms to preserve business transactions, tell stories, give warning, and record history.

fig 1. Sumerian cuneiform tablet

The ancestral awakenings of modern typography are found in cave drawings, tablets, and Egyptian hieroglyphics, ideography that served to support and preserve spoken tales of the joys and threats that comprised the daily existence of early man. From the oldest Sumerian cuneiform tablets (fig. 1) to the digital typefaces of today, written language has persevered as a crucial auxiliary to the spoken word.  The written word is invaluable as a means of preserving the past and language itself.  The beautifully-written word adds a nuance of artistic flair and reveals a concurrent history of its own.

The English alphabet evolved from the Latin one used by the Romans and is thought to have grown from Greek, Semitic, and Etruscan influences.  Our modern letterforms developed around 100 BCE, and by 100 CE, two common forms of Roman scripts were in use.  About one hundred years later, parchment and then paper were developed, and their portability was revolutionary to the spread of written language and of literacy in general.  Over the next few hundred years, the Greeks were writing using reed and quill pens with nibs, the changing widths of which altered the pens’ strokes and resulting letterforms.

The earliest form of typographical mass production, relief printing, was developed in China around 700 CE.  By 1300 CE it had reached the Europeans, who by 1440 CE were using the technology to print entire books comprised of woodblock-cut text and images.  A German blacksmith, Johannes Gutenberg set the printing world on fire with his invention of a moveable type printing press which allowed individual letterforms and punctuation to be set and reused again and again.  Gutenberg’s contribution defined the identical repetition that defines typography and largely satisfied the printing industry for the next 400 years.  Printing technologies from then on have advanced to serve the growing literate population that Gutenberg’s invention had spawned.

As a discipline, typography is as complex as any other serious subject: the magic of readability and presentation is rooted in an often mathematically-calculated aesthetic.  In selecting type, the main concern is the matter of readability.  More than just legibility, readability is a marriage of legibility and good design.  You’re likely reading this post in a typeface called Georgia, a very popular face designed for the ease of screen reading.  Just as Gutenberg’s moveable type served to facilitate the changing times, digital type must capitulate to the limits of the medium to maintain the base principle of legibility.  Bad type stands out and good type goes unnoticed, quietly serving and preserving ideas with beauty and aplomb.



Filed under Orthography

Writing Good ‘Meaning’ Questions

2012-09-03 by . 1 comments

On any Stack Exchange site, a question must be tagged. Here at EL&U, our most popular tag is the meaning tag, with over 2700 questions filed as such. Unfortunately, this tag is often misused, and many questions bearing this tag are closed, with some being subsequently deleted. Luckily, the EL&U blog is here to save the day.

Here is a set of criteria for good meaning questions:

Good meaning questions…

  1. are not General Reference
  2. are applicable to a wide audience, not just the OP (not Too Localized)
  3. ask about…
    • words or phrases that do not make sense when interpreted literally
    • words or phrases that are ambiguous
    • potentially archaic words or phrases
    • words or phrases that have different meanings in different dialects
    • other things that are generally deeper than a simple definition

1. Not General Reference General Reference questions are questions that can be fully answered with a single link to a place that is specifically designed to provide the information in the question.  These sources include online dictionaries or etymology sites.

To put it more simply, a General Reference question is too basic for EL&U. In my experience, General Reference is the most common reason for question closure. The meaning tag is more likely to be used on a General Reference question because the name and description of the tag are slightly deceptive, especially to those who don’t speak English well; it’s deceptive because meaning sounds a lot simpler than the questions should be.

Almost all definitions are easily found by using search engines or by checking dictionaries directly. In most circumstances, asking for a simple definition is too basic.

2. Not Too Localized Questions that get closed as Too Localized are unlikely to help anyone in the future, meaning that the question at hand simply does not apply to many people. These questions can stem from a user finding an unfamiliar word or phrase somewhere else on the Internet, a news article, etc. EL&U and the meaning tag seem like prime places to ask about the meanings of these unfamiliar words or phrases, but if that word/phrase has been made up and used among just a handful of people, then it likely has no established meaning, and thus cannot be explained.

More simply, they don’t mean anything to anyone other than the few who use it. Asking about the meanings of these types of phrases is not likely to be accepted, either with the meaning tag, or without.

3. So what can I ask about? Well, if your question isn’t ruled out by criterion #1 or #2, it stands a good chance of being acceptable. There are a few final things to be concerned about, but these apply to all questions—make sure it’s legible, sensible, and well-written. Be certain to clearly state the exact question you have at some point, and include research that you’ve done yourself. The list of good question criteria is a good place to start, and don’t hesitate to pop into chat to ask about your question if you’re not sure it’ll do well. Here are two examples of good meaning questions: Which day does “next Tuesday” refer to? What does “information porn” mean?

Thanks for reading, and good luck with all of your future meaning questions.

Book Review – The Adventure of English

2012-01-11 by . 3 comments

The Adventure of English

The Biography of a Language

by Melvyn Bragg

While I am a serious enthusiast when it comes to learning about and understanding my native tongue, I am an amateur with regards to my studies. The work, carried out by Melvyn Bragg in writing this book, puts anything I do far in the shade. Despite this, he opens the book explaining that he is an amateur standing on the shoulders of linguistic scholars. This is made clear if one peruses the bibliography at the end of the book.

The book proper truly is an adventure story. After the introduction, as at the start of a Hollywood blockbuster, the narrative thrusts us into the heat of battle: barbarians, Romans and Celts fighting for survival and supremacy on this fair isle (Britain—if I’m unclear). However our hero is no legatus or chieftain. No, we are following the life of something far more interesting than any individual: the English language.

The treatment of English as a character is a clever hook that keeps the book interesting by allowing the reader to sympathise with the language as if it were a person. Bragg put me on the edge of my seat at many points through out the tale. How would English survive the Norman invasion? French, with a knife at its throat. What would become of the English champions who tried to bring the Bible to the masses? Despite its progenitor’s best attempts, how English helped slaves overcome their masters on more than one occasion. Bragg gives a good feel to the language, making it seem fluid and adaptable yet strong and persistent.

Each chapter tells the story of a different turning point in the history of English. This has the added bonus of meaning that the chapters don’t have to be read in order, since they are mostly self contained.

This is a book that loves the English language. Despite what the British have done, and Bragg chastises us where appropriate, English is always held as either a helping hand to the oppressed (as well as a tool of the oppressors) or as a means by which the good can triumph. It is better than French and Spanish, and more successful than any other language it encounters. Even in near defeat by the Normans, Bragg describes the English language’s revival as if the vocabulary it picked up were just a few scratches, so the language is essentially the same as it had always been.

The story shows us the experiences of people from all walks of life, from royalty to scholars, from merchants to explorers, from conquerors to slaves, and beyond. We are treated to excerpts from plays, poetry and myths, as well as the drier dictionaries and legislation. Every type of English has a part to play in its history.

I thoroughly recommend this book for lovers of history and language. It is not a deep scholarly work, insofar as it covers so much so it cannot be detailed about everything and it will have to miss some things out. Regardless, it is a very informative and entertaining book for anyone, especially those looking to start understanding the history of English.

Available at Amazon and Blackwells.

Filed under Etymology

Getting into the spirit

2011-12-20 by . 0 comments

… the Holiday spirit, that is. Here’s a selection of Christmas and other end-of-year holiday questions that you may find interesting.

Determining Which Good Sentiment to Wish at Each Holiday – If you have ever wondered why we don’t say “Merry New Year”, or why “Happy Christmas” is perfectly fine in Britain but exceedingly odd in America, you’re not alone. If you know some of the history behind these set phrases, here’s your opportunity to post a good answer.

How many articles should go in “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!”? and How should Merry Christmas and Happy New Year be capitalized? – These questions might come in handy if you haven’t written your Christmas cards yet.

What preposition should I use before “Christmas”? – Yes, this is Yet Another Question About Prepositions, but like many other commonplace expressions, Christmas does have its idiosyncrasies, so the answers might be worth a read if English isn’t your native language, or if you’re puzzled by the usage on the opposite side of the pond. Another similar question is Prepositions for “Wednesday night” and “the night of Christmas Eve.”

What method of counting puts Twelfth Night on January 6? – OK, full disclosure, this is my question, but I still think it’s a good one. And my traditional year-end gripe bears repeating, too: however you count them, the twelve days of Christmas come after Christmas. If you’re taking down your decorations on the 26th, you’re doing it wrong.

And finally, why do some words have “X” as a substitute? – This is worth reading just for the comment by mgkrebbs, which (in my opinion) quite effectively debunks the notion that writing “Xmas” is a nefarious new plot to remove Christ from Christmas.


2011-12-06 by . 7 comments

I have a confession to make: I’m really a prescriptivist at heart. I have an idea in my head of how the English language ought to be used, and deviations from that ideal bother me. They especially bother me when I have to listen to them on a daily basis, courtesy of television commercials.

For example, one of my first questions on ELU was about the laundry detergent commercial tagline of “Style is an option. Clean is not.” As I noted, while it’s obvious what they meant, it’s also not quite what they said — if clean is out of the question, then why would anyone ever use this detergent? It would be such a simple fix, too: just replace “an option” with “optional”, and you’d have an unambiguous and grammatically correct tagline.

Another recent violator is the luxury car commercial that ends with (for example) “More power, more style, more technology, less doors”. (The list of more adjectives changes with different versions of the advertisement.) Every time that ad plays, I swear I can hear the collective moan of pain from English teachers and grammar nerds across the country. Again, the fix would be simple: fewer would contrast with more  just as well as less does,  with the added advantage of not hurting the ears of potential customers.

But oddly enough, other misuses of language don’t bother me. For example, the economy car ad tagline “unbig, uncar” elicits a grin, not a groan. I was wondering why this is, and I think I’ve hit on something: “unbig, uncar” doesn’t have an easy correction that would get the same idea across using more conventional grammar. “Small, not a car” just doesn’t have the same impact. So it’s obvious that this slogan is deliberately ungrammatical.

It turns out that even for a prescriptivist, a mistake made on purpose isn’t a mistake at all. (Warning: black hole, ahem, sorry, tv tropes link.)

Filed under Grammar

The Basics of Limerick Composition

2011-11-16 by . 11 comments

It is difficult to judge someone’s language proficiency. There are plenty of standardised tests, but in my humble opinion, they just prove someone can pass a test, not how good they are at using a language.

Two things that can indicate a good grasp of a language, at least in the case of English, are the abilities to pun and to rhyme.

Punning is probably more difficult than rhyming, since it requires not only a good grasp of pronunciation and a swift vocabulary, but also knowledge of the meaning of a great many words and idioms.

One of my favourite British pastimes that involves a lot of rhyming and occasional punning, is that of writing limericks. I won’t be concentrating on puns, since they are not essential to limericks.

I can see you’re all wondering what this wondrous thing, a limerick, is. Limericks are a type of verse, invented as a parlour game. They follow a simple pattern:

  • They have five lines.
  • The last words of the first, second and fifth lines must have the same rhyme.
  • The last words of the third and fourth lines must have the same rhyme.
  • The first, second and fifth lines have the syllable stress pattern of duh DA duh duh DA duh duh daaa (approximately).
  • The third and fourth lines have the syllable stress pattern of duh duh DA duh duh DA (approximately).

I say that they have five lines, but often limericks are written with the third and fourth lines combined into one. It is simpler to learn how to write limericks by thinking of them as having five lines. The stress patterns should be adhered to as well as possible, but can be fudged somewhat in order to include a rhyme. The only strict rule is the rhyming pattern of AABBA.

I think an example will be most illustrative. One of the great British poets, Edward Lear, was famous for his limericks. Here is an example:

There was an old man who said, ‘See!
I have found the most beautiful bee!’
When they said, ‘Does it buzz?’
he answered, ‘It does,
I never beheld such a bee!’

You can often tell an Edward Lear limerick by how two of the lines, usually the first and fifth or second and fifth, make the rhyme using the same word (in this instance, bee).

As an example of how being able to rhyme can demonstrate one’s proficiency in English, if you look at the third and fourth lines of Lear’s limerick, you can see that does rhymes with buzz. While the pronunciation of does is probably one of the earlier things learnt in English, it might not be obvious to all due to how the spellings differ.

Another point is the ability to know which words will best fit the stress patterns for the limerick. This is something that can only be learnt through extensive practice. In our above example, the words fit the stress patterns almost exactly. The fourth line, however, does rely on a pause at the end to keep the rhythm.

Some say that for a limerick to be a true limerick it must be salacious or rude in some way. I do not agree. I think that beyond the structure of the limerick, the main semantic rule is that they should be light hearted. A serious limerick is a pointless thing.

So if you’re wondering how well your ability in English is coming along, try composing a few limericks. The easier you are finding it, the better your grasp of English is.

Themed Questions: Wars

2011-11-11 by . 2 comments

On 11 November 1918, at 11 AM Paris time, the armistice that ended fighting between the Triple Entente and Germany in the First World War came into effect, and to this day, nations around the world hold memorial days on November 11th, no matter what they are called—Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, Memorial Day, or Veterans Day.

For better or for worse, wars are no small part of human history, and that is evident in the questions the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange site receives. Let’s take a look at a few:

How do I say WWI out loud?

As most countries observe November 11th in honor of those who died in WWI, let’s start with a question about that conflict. How do we expand the acronym?

Our members provide several suggestions: the First World War and World War One seem to be among the names most commonly used.

Are the allies always good guys?

Another fascinating question of terminology. The OP perhaps explains the question best:

[T]he side described as “allies” is nearly always reserved to the side to which the speaker has sympathy. Although technically the word means somebody in alliance, I virtually never seen the word applied to a supposedly bad side even if that side has an alliance of their own.

Word for opposing sides in a war

Let’s say we’d like to sidestep the issue of naming each side and just use a more general term for the two sides fighting in a war. What are our options?

Centigonal provides us with our most popular suggestion, belligerents, but Mitch and mickeyf trail close behind, with opponents, combatants, and adversaries as alternatives.

When referring to a specific war (or other named event), should the word “war” be capitalized when it appears alone?

Here’s a broader question. If we’re referring to, say, the Cold War, and we use the word war by itself, should it be capitalized?

Jim opines that both can be valid, but both he and Barrie England seem to prefer that war not be capitalized.

“Decimate”: has it been used in the “classic” sense in modern writing?

On a related note, decimate is a word commonly criticized that many people believe should mean to kill one in every ten, but very rarely do we see it used to mean the execution of a proportion that is anywhere near one-tenth. How often is the “correct” meaning used?

Very rarely, it seems—the answerers only seem to have been able to source it a few times. But ShreevatsaR provides us with an interesting glimpse of why what many people perceive to be the correct meaning is in fact not grounded in historical fact. Fascinating reading.

No matter where you live, November 11 marks an important anniversary for the human race—WWI is called a world war for a reason. Even as we enjoy the remarkable uniqueness of the date (i.e. 11-11-11), we should also take a moment to remember the tragedies of the World Wars.