Posts Tagged ‘linguistics’


May 31, 2016

I’m having my balcony renovated. My apartment is on the top floor of a high-rise, and to get things done, I need to get an access to the technical floor right above the balcony. For this, I have to secure a key to the door that leads to the technical floor. The key is with the administrator of the local public utilities office (the office is known as ZHEK in Ukraine). The administrator has given the key to the chief engineer of ZHEK, who does not know where the key is: “Only in the morning it was hanging here, on this peg, and now it’s gone” (the voice is surprised, the eyes round and the mouth open). A phone call to an elevator-service dispatcher reveals that two people have got stuck in an elevator and a salvage van has been directed to my block of flats to release the unfortunate from their confinement. The key I’m after is with the rescuers because they also need an access to the technical floor to re-start the elevator…. I rush back home to discover that the “first-aid” elevator team has just freed the people from the elevator and may be now back on the way to ZHEK…

To cut a long story short, I held the most sought-after item in my sweated hand only four hours after I had started the “key-race.” “A key… the key… key…” I kept murmuring the word to myself…How pleasant the word “key” sounds. To use a quote from Oscar Wild, “it produces vibrations.” It’s extremely versatile in meaning and usage. It can help you gain entrance or deny it. “Key” explains riddles and provides solutions to problems, it generates musical tones and types your dissertation. At the end of test books it shows how good you are at math or foreign language grammar. It gives instructions on how to encipher or decipher messages, it identifies the intensity of colors or emotions (“high-key reds”, “low-key-speech”). Of late, the word has risen in its status to match the requirement of the times and is now functioning “electronically”: we use keycards (also: card keys) to open doors and withdraw money from an ATM. We also use key fobs to get an access to network services, which is more reliable than an access with a password…

The chief engineer told me I had to return the key by the end of the day. I certainly returned it, but not before I dropped in at a locksmith’s “while-you-wait” nearby to get a copy of the key made. The copy was made within five minutes and cost me 25 Hr. A mere nothing compared to the pleasure of permanently possessing it and mulling over it.



May 3, 2016

DSC05667The word EASTER, standing for the most important Christian holiday, developed from Anglo-Saxon EASTERDAEG which, in turn,  goes back to Proto-Germanic AUSTRON (“dawn, sunrise”). However, “Easter” is used only in three Germanic languages: English, German and Icelandic. All neighboring languages use a variant of Latin “Pascha” to name the holiday.  “Eastre” was also the name of a goddess of fertility and spring whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox.

The word combination “Easter egg” appeared in English only in 1825, “Easter rabbit” in 1888 and “Easter bunny” in 1904. That was the result of the paganish customs of Easter growing popular at the end of the 19th century. Before, such customs were limited to German immigrants. “Egg hunting”, “egg cracking” and “church clipping” came into English about this time too. Incidentally, the Easter vocabulary varies considerably from country to country and from confession to confession. For example, Orthodox Christians consider the utterance “Christ is Risen” (with the reply “He is Risen Indeed”) a required greeting on Easter days. Although the same paschal formula is known to believers in Western countries, they will sooner say “Happy Easter!”

Different cultures have their own proverbs and sayings about Easter. Some of such lexical units are humorous. The richest, in this respect, is Ukrainian: He’s such a good farmer that even his hens lay Easter eggs (Такий вдатний ґазда, що й кури крашанками несуться), or: Keep on grunting, little pig, Easter hasn’t arrived yet (Рохкай, пацю, рохкай, іще не Великдень), or: The egg is older than the hen because it’s consecrated (А яйце від курки старше, бо воно свячене), or: Help yourself to the sausage before Easter is over (Їж ковбаску, поки Паска). The same may be observed in German: Every year Easter makes life difficult for rabbits (Es ist das Osterfest alljährlich – für den Hasen recht beschwerlich).

English proverbs dealing with Easter are less casual and have a connotation of “instructive wisdom”, e.g. Easter so longed for is gone in a day. It took me some time to “decipher” the English proverb dating back to the year 1614: When Easter day lies in our Lady’s lap, then, O England, beware of a clap (other variants: ” …then England shall have a great mishap,” and “…then let the clergyman look to his cap”). In fact, the proverb is about the case when Easter (the date of which is flexible) comes close to (or, on) the day of Annunciation observed on the fixed date of March 25 (Lady Day). Apocryphally it was believed in those days that Jesus’s mother (Lady, the Blessed Virgin) would be taking revenge on people for crucifying her son when she saw the day of his death so close to her own day (Lady’s Day, or Lady Day). Consequently, all social or any other upheavals and calamities that could strike the country in that “special” year could be explained by the “unhappy” coincidence of the dates. Of course, now we understand that such an interpretation is nothing but prejudice. However, that was the case and it was registered by the language.

Once I came upon a question: what book would you take with you to read on a deserted island (along with the Bible and Shakespeare’s work)? I’d probably choose the Book of Word Histories, which is a breath-taking chronicle of human errors and achievements.


March 16, 2016

According to UNESCO decision, March 15 will be the annual date for World Speech Day starting from this year. In ancient times it was believed that oratory skills could change the course of historical events and lives of peoples. The art of effective speaking was of considerable value in Greece as early as 5th century BC. Many Roman families sent their sons to Greece to have them trained by famous public speakers. Oratory (rhetoric) became a central subject in the Greek and Roman education system.

Eventual disappointment with the power of the word uttered may have caused the degradation of the mastery of public speaking. I don’t know any high school syllabus in Ukraine of which rhetoric would be a required course. Debating clubs are organized but they exist mainly due to dedicated enthusiasts. All the more reason to value those rare individuals who can appeal to people’s hearts and minds and win them into their way of thinking. They are usually persons whom you trust, like pulpit orators with uplifting sermons, or lecturers knowing their profession from A to Z and being able to present scholarly concepts clearly and persuasively.

300px-AndreevNDIn 1969 a provincial teachers’ training college in Ukraine was visited by a guest lecturer from Leningrad (the city known today as St. Petersburg). The lecturer’s name was Nikolay Andreyev, a senior researcher at the Linguistic Institute. Our dean told us, unwilling students of the last year of study, that it was a must for us to attend his lecture. Thus, we were bought to the stream, we were made to drink the water, but… we were happy about it after the very first sentences pronounced by Nikolay Dmitriyevich. The logic of his presentation, the beauty of scientific thought, the mass of ideas “disciplined” and streamlined by discovered laws of language development… I was charmed into linguistics. That may have been the first time when we had heard anyone speaking seriously about machine translation and the application of mathematics to the reconstruction of the early Indo-European protolanguage.

Professor Andreyev…his dazzled listeners… World Speech Day was to be introduced 47 years after.


February 5, 2016

1.’My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.’
John Fitzgerald Kennedy (35th President), 1961-1963.

2.’If I were two-faced – would I be wearing this one?’
Abraham Lincoln (16th President) 1861-1865

3.’There is a homely old adage which runs: “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.”‘
Theodore Roosevelt (26th President) 1901-1909

4.’Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the national debt’
Herbert Hoover (31st President) 1929-1933. President during the Great Depression.

5.’The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (32nd President) 1933-1945. The President whose ‘New Deal’ tackled the Great Depression.

6.’Washington DC is twelve square miles bordered by reality’
Andrew Johnson (17th President) 1865-1869. The President who bought Alaska from the Russians.

harrystruman1_2740563k-large7.’You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.’
Harry S Truman (33rd President) 1945-1953. Truman is pictured here with the infamous copy of the 1948 Chicago Tribune, published early on election night, with the mistaken headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.

8.’You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.’
Abraham Lincoln (16th President) 1861-1865

9.’I can’t deny I’m a better ex-President than I was a President.’
James Earl Carter Jnr (39th President) 1977-1981

10.’I know only two tunes: one of them is Yankee Doodle – and the other isn’t.’
Ulysses S Grant (18th President) 1869-1877

11.’This is a Government of the people by the people and for the people no longer. It is a Government of Corporation by Corporation and for Corporation.’
Rutherford B Hayes (19th President) 1877-1881

12.’I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency – even if I’m in a Cabinet meeting.’
Ronald Wilson Reagan (40th President) 1981-1989

13.’It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one’
George Washington, 1st President (1789-1797).

14.No one ever listened himself out of a job.’
Calvin Coolidge (30th President) 1923-1929.

15.’Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?’
George W Bush (43rd President) 2001-2009

16.’It was involuntary. They sank my boat.’
(asked how he became a war hero)
John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK, 35th President), 1961-1963

There were more of these witticisms on the website of but I picked up only these  – maybe because I associate them with what I saw (and keep seeing) in my life. You start reading John F. Kennedy’s famous words about putting “duty before self” (see No 1) and you feel that it’s impossible to “think high” when every day brings evidence of greed and corruption on the part of those who rule Ukraine. Even when they step down, our ex-presidents cannot apply Jimmy Carter’s jocular words (No 9) to themselves: crowds in the streets of Kyiv used to chant to Viktor Yushchenko “Judas, Judas” (meaning Judas Iscariot) long after he ceased to be President. You can only give a sad smile when you read Herbert Hoover’s one-liner about the national debt (No 4), or what Rutherford B. Hayes said about a government (No 11) – just  “Ukrainian” situations. President Ronald Reagan’s joke about sleeping in the Cabinet’s meeting (No 12) makes me think about the senile Leonid Brezhnev who used to sleep while reading his speeches from the rostrum (he could read the same page twice without noticing that it was the same text). As for the Bushism under No 15 (still I think that it was a slip of the tongue), quite a number of similar “isms” were picked up in impromptu talks of each of the Ukrainian presidents, especially in those of Viktor Yanukovych.

Linguistically interesting is Calvin Coolidge’s No one ever listened himself out of a job. (No 14). It contains the verb “to listen” used with an additional component of movement (change of state), as may be observed in phrases of the type: “to whistle out of the station (about a train)”, “to sing oneself into fame”, etc. A useful example for seminars in English lexicology!  🙂 It is hard to find a parallel in the Ukrainian language, but I think I remember one. As a child, I was frowned upon when I whistled in the room: old people in my village believed that money, if any, could disappear out of the household if you whistled inside the house (I’m not sure whether this prejudice keeps nowadays). The reproof sounded like “висвистиш із хати всі гроші” (“you’ll whistle all the money out of the house”). A good example of cross-cultural linguistics, I presume.


May 12, 2015

While following the style of expression to which possible 2016 contenders for American presidency resort, I was surprised to find out that they try to avoid using the term “middle class”, although for each of them it’s critically important to win that social stratum over to their side. The clue to the lexical aberration may be the results of the recent Gallup poll ( The “middle class” had long been synonymous with the American dream – a house in the suburbs, a permanent job, tertiary education for children, opportunities for social mobility, financial security (also in one’s old age). At present the situation in the American society is described by sociologists as an “hourglass model”: much wealth is being concentrated in the upper stratum, more low-paying jobs appeared at the bottom, but a lot of jobs with median wages have been lost in the middle. Actually, for millions of families the middle has ceased to be a secure place. Belonging to the middle class evokes fears of falling behind, social connotations of the term have changed, so candidates wishing to appeal to middle-class Americans do not know how to address them and they are grasping for a right word. I watched excerpts from speeches of a few American politicians on the Internet. Here’s how they say it:

Mike Huckabee (R): “The working class blue collar people who grew up a lot like I did – not blue blood, but blue collar…”

Martin O’Malley (D): “Eighty per cent of those who are working harder, but are not getting ahead…”

Senator Rand Paul (R): “All Americans, especially those who have been left behind…”

Senator Ted Cruz (R):Hard-working men and women across America are hurting. We today have the lowest labor participation force since 1979…”

Senator Marco Rubio (R):Millions and millions of people who aren’t rich… “; “… People who are to work full time and raise a family…

Senator Bernie Sanders (D): “There needs to be a voice to represent the working families of this country…

Hilary Clinton, who, generally, uses the replacement “everyday Americans”, once mentioned the “middle class” too. However, she did it in a nostalgic context: “We need to make ‘being the middle class’ mean something again.”

DSC05005bIn 1971 the Russian linguist Ruben Budagov wrote a book “History of Words in the History of Civilisations”, which was rather popular among those who were engaged in sociolinguistic research at that time. I was a post-graduate student in those days and found it an added relish to my studies, following the development of such words as science, art, nature, culture, person, talent, genius, humour, irony, drama, tragedy, romanticism, etc. in their connection with the development of society. Alas, key-words in current social history are less cultural and romantic, but more dramatic and, at times, there are more tragedies of crushed hopes behind them.



August 8, 2014

2014-08-08Maidan on August 7Enantiosemy is the existence of two opposite meanings in one word. The words containing such opposed meanings are called differently: contranyms, auto-antonyms, antagonyms, self-antonyms, Janus words (after the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and transitions), etc. Enantiosemy may be observed in all languages. In English it is represented by such words as “cleave” (= to separate and adhere), “dust” (= to remove dust and to cover with dust), “inflammable” (= capable of burning and unburnable), “sanction” (= to permit and to punish), “off” (about something that is not functioning and something that starts functioning). There are more complicated cases of enantiosemy, like the word “deceptively.” When we say “The room is deceptively large”, the room may be either larger or smaller than it seems. A classical example of historical enantiosemy is an alleged description of St. Paul’s Cathedral given by a British monarch: “It is awful, pompous and artificial”, which in the Shakespearean times actually meant: “awe-inspiring, majestic and ingeniously designed.”

In Ukrainian, enantiosemy is not so widespread: one of the few cases is the word “slava” [sl-AH-va], which may stand for “glory” as well as “bad repute.” However, the Ukrainian language may be credited for one other recent self-antonym — “Maidan.” When used last winter, it was the key-word symbolizing the “Revolution of Dignity” as well as the strength and stamina of the revolutionaries who rose against the corruptive regime. As of nowadays, Maidan is nothing but a gathering place of aggressive  individuals armed with Molotov cocktails and pretending to defend democratic values. Dirt and stench are all over the central square of Kyiv. It’s impossible to have any negotiations with the present-day Maidan: there is no single self-administrative body there. Boastfully, the Maidan inhabitants say Maidan comprises about 60 organizations. Considering that the total number of the “maidan-ers” living in tents is about 300 people, each “organization” is supposed to include about 5 members(?). Those who are keeping watch on Maidan say they are staying there because the government “hasn’t fulfilled Maidan’s winter directives”, which is why the government must be “controlled.” There are now hardly any people on Maidan who were there last February. All those who “gave directives” last winter and who understand where the real danger is, and who are fit for military action, are at the moment in the East of Ukraine fighting against the Russians. Those who remain on Maidan now, are largely homeless, or drunkards, or both. When you ask them, they will tell you that they are going to the war “in a couple of days.” Meanwhile they are following passers-by with “charity boxes” asking for money (they say it’s “for Maidan”) or accosting females who happen to be in this place.

Yesterday, when the communal workers tried to clear the central street of the city, the Maidan dwellers set fire to the tyres which they keep as a kind of defensive weapons. Many communal workers were injured and retreated. After that the maidan-ers brought even more tyres and built barricades using also portable toilets for this purpose.

My strong suspicion is that the present-day “Maidan” (or, rather, anti-Maidan) is financially supported by anti-Ukrainian subversive organizations – including those from Russia. Otherwise, this stupid, dirty and stinking “protest” wouldn’t last that long.

In Ukrainian and Russian there exist two words which come from the same root but mean quite opposite things: “vrodlYvyi” (Ukr. for “beautiful’ or “handsome”) and “urOdlivyi” (Russ. for “ugly”). For me that opposition epitomizes the difference between what Maidan was before and what Maidan is now.


October 25, 2012

Most bilingual dictionaries define the American slang “shuck and jive” as something like “misrepresentation, deception, eyewash, cock-and-bull story, etc.” (that is, when you translate the foreign part of the definition back into English). If to be limited by the limitations of two-language dictionaries, a learner of English may not understand why President Obama’s team could be sensitive to Sarah Palin’s words when the latter accused him of “shuck-and-jiving” while handling the attack in Benghazi ( ). Chris Matthews, an anchor at the television show Hardball, said that this expression has a “particular ethnic connotation.” I made a brief search through some monolingual dictionaries and encyclopaedias to find that “to shuck and jive” originally referred to the intentionally misleading words and actions that African-Americans would employ in order to deceive racist Euro-Americans in power, both during the period of slavery and afterwards. The expression was documented as being in wide usage in the 1920s, but may have originated much earlier. “Shucking and jiving” was a tactic of both survival and resistance. A slave, for instance, could say eagerly, “Oh, yes, Master,” and have no real intention to obey. Or an African-American man could pretend to be working hard at a task he was ordered to do, but might put up this pretense only when under observation. Both would be instances of “doin’ the old shuck ‘n jive.”
It has been adopted into non-Afro-American speech, with a reference to behavior adopted in order to avoid criticism, e.g. In order to keep my job, I had to do the shuck and jive! It is this, more extended meaning of the word that the former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate meant when she responded to the accusation:

there was nothing remotely racist in my use of the phrase ‘shuck and jive’—a phrase which many people have used, including Chris Matthews, Andrew Cuomo, and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney to name a few off the top of my head….In fact, Andrew Cuomo also used the phrase in reference to Barack Obama, and the fact that Mr. Cuomo and I used the phrase in relation to President Obama signifies nothing out of the ordinary. I would have used the exact same expression if I had been writing about President Carter, whose foreign policy rivaled Obama’s in its ineptitude, or about the Nixon administration, which was also famously rocked by a cover-up. I’ve been known to use the phrase most often when chastising my daughter Piper to stop procrastinating and do her homework. As she is part Yup’ik Eskimo, I’m not sure if this term would be deemed offensive when it’s directed at her or if it would be considered benign as in the case of Chris Matthews’ use of it in reference to Rachel Maddow. Just to be careful, from now on I’ll avoid using it with Piper, and I would appreciate it if the media refrained from using words and phrases like igloo, Eskimo Pie, and “when hell freezes over,” as they might be considered offensive by my extended Alaska Native family.” ( )


I consulted my daughter, who had lived in the U.S.A. for quite some time, about how the Americans use the expression “shuck and jive”. She said that there was nothing offensive if this word combination was used either in an “only-black” or “only-white” community. However, in a white person’s talk referring to an Afro-American, the expression could acquire some “undesirable connotations” and should, probably, be avoided within the framework of political correctness.

A finishing detail: when African Americans heard former President Bill Clinton call Barack Obama a “kid”, that was seen as an insult. Mr. Obama was a 46-year-old man who was a United States senator. It was remindful of grown black men being called “boy” during the Jim Crow era. Seemingly, no harm was done, but … the context has meaning.

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