Crazy talk – why do we say that?

Have you ever been whelmed? I have no idea if I have been or not. I am deeply underwhelmed by the battery life on my phone and overwhelmed with joy at the sight of the daffodils starting to bloom after the latest cold spell in this long winter. However, the word ‘whelmed’ is rarely used on its own and I didn’t know what it meant until I looked it up.

According to Merriam-Webster the definition of ‘whelm’: transitive verb. 1 : to turn (something, such as a dish or vessel) upside down usually to cover something : cover or engulf completely with usually disastrous effect. 2 : to overcome in thought or feeling : overwhelm. whelmed with a rush of joy.

Before I turned to the dictionary, I had racked my brain for the answer, but then I wondered if I had actually wracked my brain? It turns out that ‘rack’ from the rack, a form of torture, is the normal variant within this phrase, although ‘wrack’ from wreck can also be considered appropriate.

I’m discombobulated by the fact that, as an educated woman, I didn’t know enough about whelming or (w)racking. But, I don’t remember ever thinking of myself as being combobulated (the spell-checker doesn’t like that, either).

There are quite a few (or quite a lot of, i.e. many) examples of how our beautiful language is booby-trapped with strange idioms and word usage that doesn’t appear to adhere to the rule of logic. The use of the phrase ‘quite a few’ once upset a colleague who is fluent in English, but not a native speaker, as she thought the large number of issues she had uncovered was being dismissed.

Sitting with primary school children embarking on their journey with the rules of the English language is like seeing it clearly for the first time. My decades of getting used to the way it works are swept away and I am confronted again and again with bizarre examples of pronunciation and spellings – lists of rules and longer lists of exceptions. It’s a bit like the difference between chemistry and physics: I love the deeper meaning that can be found in the underlying physics, but it is easier to learn by rote in the way you need to in chemistry than to perform the calculations to determine what will result from a reaction between two molecules.

As well as having to work out the standard sounds that individual letters and simple consecutive combinations will make, we have to look to the end of the word to find out if we have a split digraph; are we reading ‘spit’ or ‘spite’? In their haste to get on with a story, kids often confuse ‘stared’ and ‘started’, which can indicate their level of comprehension. To determine the pronunciation of words such as ‘read’, ‘lead’ and ‘row’ we need to see the context of the entire sentence before speaking out loud. Why is it all so complicated, and why are there so many ways to pronounce the letter combination ‘ough’?

Where did it come from?

Purists despair at combining Greek and Latin roots within a single word, as in ‘television’, which came into English usage from French with its roots being τῆλε (tèle), meaning ‘far’ in Ancient Greek, and visio meaning ‘sight’ in Latin. But our entire language is an exotic cocktail, reflecting the many peoples that have landed on our shores over many thousands of years bringing their customs, religions and ways of communicating with them.

The way in which British people speak today has evolved over many years, with ancestral languages branching and changing as groups of people moved from one part of Europe to another, and recombining with later invasions and migrations.

The people of Gaul introduced Celtic languages – which became Gaelic in the north and Brittonic in the south – to the British Isles from around 800BC, and these were later marginalised by the influx of Roman and then the Germanic languages. The most influential branches of the Germanic languages for the British Isles were West German, which came with the Anglo-Saxons after the collapse of the Roman Empire and developed into Old English, and North German brought as Old Norse in many waves of Viking invasions between the 8th and 11th centuries. The arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066 paved the way for French to become part of our linguistic mix, bringing in many words, but not usurping the constantly evolving English from its position of dominance.

British place names are a fascinating source of historical information, mapping the settlements of migrant groups over thousands of years. The names of many towns on the fringes of Great Britain have Celtic origins, like Aberdeen and Aberyswtwyth, where ‘aber’ means mouth and the river names are ‘Don’ and ‘Ystwyth’, respectively. The Anglo-Saxon ‘leah’, meaning clearing gives the ending to many towns and villages, like Black Notley, where I spent part of my childhood. Much of Essex has Anglo-Saxon heritage, but its most famous historical site is Colchester, formerly the Roman garrison-town of Camulodunum, .

Number names also give away the intertwined relationships between different language groups dating back several thousands of years. While the words for most of the single digits are at least superficially similar across Celtic, Romance and Germanic languages, the modern English words for ‘four’ and ‘five’ most closely resemble Germanic, showing how we learned to count.

The English language continued to expand as trade routes grew longer and the British Empire expanded. Examples of words that have come into common usage from India include ‘khaki’, ’jodhpur’ and ‘dinghy’, although my favourites are probably ‘hullabaloo’ and ‘doolally’. This latter word has morphed in the North East of England, at least, to the beautifully expressive ‘doolally-tap’. Many words have come from Arabic, often via Romance languages, for example, ‘coffee’, ‘sugar’, ‘alcohol’ and ‘algebra’. From the Far East we have ‘typhoon’ and ‘tycoon’, and from Africa ‘chemistry’ and ‘banjo’.

Every year new phrases and words appear, existing words change their definition, and other words fall out of common usage. New words for inclusion in the OED in 2018 include ‘mansplaining’ and ‘hangry’. I know a lot about ‘hangry’… After the recent late winter, I still think of a ‘snowflake’ as being an ice crystal, but it now also refers to the delicate nature of millennials. The word ‘betrump’ means to deceive, cheat, elude or slip from (who’d have thought it?), according to this list of thirty words that have been identified to be brought back.

The English language will continue to change as our society does. The traditional source is immigration and people from different lands make their homes in English speaking countries. Furthermore, the rate of change is increasing as words arise from popular culture and spread virally in the age of social media and instant connection. At the moment, I help children learn to navigate the complexities of reading English, but in just a few years time those same children will be using words that haven’t been invented yet, and they’ll need to explain them to me.


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