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The tales that words tell

New book claims to chart secret life of the English language


Explores why new words are born

Longest one-syllable word is “strength”


New Delhi: “Feisty” is taken as something of a compliment today, but did you know that in Old English it meant a flatulent dog? Or that “silhouette” is a take-off on a French politician whose name signified anything cheap?

A new book that claims to chart the secret life of the English language reveals it all, including how jobs are “Bangalored.”

With examples ranging from Shakespeare to text messaging, Buttering Parsnips Twocking Chavs: The Secret Life of the English Language lists idioms, cliches and catchphrases, and “tells whether you’re a yuppie or a woopie , a sinbad or a dinky, a spod or even a wazzock.”

Business world jargon — “to Bangalore” or to outsource work to India — finds space alongside “decruit” (to make redundant) and “blue-sky thinking’ (to be imaginative). “Text messages cavort alongside business jargon and rap slang to produce a language that is both witty and bizarre,” says Martin H. Manser, co-author.

It explores why new words and phrases are born, how mistakes and jokes affect a word’s career, and why some words die. One such word used just once by the inventor James Joyce — “mangongwheeltracktrolleyglarejuggernaut” — finds a place in the nearly 300-page book, along with “hipomonsteresquipedalophobia” (fear of words) and “hyperpolysyllabicsesquipedalianist’ (one who uses long words).

Other stories abound: including that of Irishman James Daly who accepted a bet to bring into vogue a new word in one day, and scribbled “quiz’ on the wall of every tavern in Dublin to win the bet.

Origin of words

The book lists the origin of words such as “silhouette,” which comes from Etienne de Silhouette, a French politician whose name signified anything cheap; “leotards’ named after acrobat Jules Leotard; “jeans’ after Genoa, the Italian town where denim fabric was made, and “maverick” which came from Texan rancher Samuel Maverick, who refused to brand his cattle as all the others did.

The word “muscle” comes from the Latin word for “little mouse,” and refers to the imagery of muscles looking like mice running around under the skin. “Panic,” meaning uncontrollable fear, has its origin in the frenzied rites associated with the Greek god Pan.

According to the authors — Manser and David Pickering — the longest word in English has 207,000 letters, and it is the “systematic name for deoxyribonucleic acid of the human mitochondria.” The longest one-syllable word is “strength,” the longest run of consonants in a word is “catchphrase,” the longest word without a vowel is “rhythm” and the only word ending with ‘mt” is “dreamt.” The book lists hundreds of words that are no longer in use — “cloakatively” (superficially), “kexy’ (dry or brittle), “prandicle” (a small meal) and “murklins” (in the dark) . — PTI

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