Early on in lockdown, it was mooted that whilst dogs were delighted to have humans invade their daytime territory, cats were maybe not quite so thrilled at their routines being so rudely interrupted. Our particular canines and feline seem pretty happy, with tailwags and purrs aplenty, even if there has been some keyboard chaos. Cats and dogs are all-the-more-cherished companions in such times of isolation, but observing their antics these past weeks has prompted me to re-reflect on the many references to them in our language. A small selection:
Like herding cats; Has the cat got your tongue? Let the cat out of the bag; Looks like something the cat dragged in; Take a cat-nap; Be a copy-cat; Put the cat amongst the pigeons; Like a cat that got the cream; Fat cat; Not a cat in hell’s chance; The cat’s pyjamas/whiskers; Pussyfooting around and one I’d forgotten… A cat may look at a king – meaning we all have rights, whatever our status.
It’s raining cats and dogs; Fight like cat and dog; It’s a dog’s life; A dog’s dinner; Why keep a dog and bark yourself? Sick as a dog; Gone to the dogs; Dog-eat-dog; Let sleeping dogs lie; Doggy bag; Can’t teach an old dog new tricks; Hair of the dog; Like a dog with two tails; Dog-tired; In the dog-house and Three-dog night – with Aborigine or Eskimo origin – meaning a very cold night, requiring the extra warmth of 3 dogs on your bed.
Our (two) dogs do end up on the bed sometimes … and the cat – well – he’s super-helpful around the office with his specialist skill of thinking inside the box.
I hear Radio 2 are launching their 10th “500 words” competition this week. On last year’s winners’ show I was tickled to hear HRH the Duchess of Cornwall alluding to the influence of “outsiders” in our history/culture and to the number of “foreign” words in common English usage. She mentioned ‘pensive’, ‘odour’ and ‘poltergeist’ amongst others and her point that our language included so many words “loaned” from beyond these borders, set me thinking …
Maybe this de facto member of the Intelligentsia – certainly not the hoi-polloi – was leading us a (ballet) dance or up a cul-de-sac; should we kowtow to the status quo or believe such poppycock? Were these claims made ad-nauseum by a prima donna Highness – she of the shampooed coiffure – bona fide? Could they bring a typhoon or tsunami of protest? Should we follow Robin Williams’ carpe diem dictum and leave the comfort of our home/chalet/the patio barbecue, pack our rucksack with mosquito spray, utensils, delicatessen-bought smorgasbord lunch including sausage, ketchup, chocolate, sherbet lemons, alcohol and anonymously, en-masse, as macho, tattooed, personae-non-grata, agent-provocateur wunderkinder alight our mopeds – with chutzpah – to pursue an alfresco refusenik vendetta? Or perhaps avoid such a kamikaze, catastrophic or cartoon-inducing fiasco and become pundits or paparazzi for news of a genre capturing the leitmotiv or zeitgeist? Vis-à-vis any meaning, is this increasingly non-sequitous/nonsensical?…
Indeed … and apologies to HRH and scooter/picnic enthusiasts everywhere, but you may see where I’m going; in the above at least 55 words/phrases are “borrowed”. That’s well over a third … and these intruders have certainly added flavour/colour to our vocabulary – and our lives. Ketchup seems to have come from the Chinese kê-chiap (鮭汁) or Malay (kecap). Now WHERE would we be without the red stuff?
The idiom “as good as gold” originally referred to something that
was real and genuine. In the past, business was conducted using a document that
promised payment within a certain amount of time – a credit note. Some
customers paid on time but others delayed payment or used forged credit notes
to avoid paying altogether. So many business owners preferred being paid in
gold/silver, which was real, tangible and immediate.
The current meaning shows a shift to something that is genuinely good – we
speak mainly of a child being “as good as gold”.
At the other end of the spectrum, “the bad” and specifically the devil hides
behind many sayings: “as ugly as sin” (meaning hideous looking) was
first recorded in 1801 replacing the original “as ugly as the devil”. And to “play devil’s advocate” meaning
to argue an unpopular view or one the arguer doesn’t necessarily believe in,
(to provoke debate or test validity of the opposing argument) also has
religious origins. It’s a translation
from the Latin advocatus diaboli, the popular title given to the Catholic
Church official who has to present arguments against the proposed canonisation
of a saint. Typically, the official
would be proposing a view he didn’t agree with to ensure the right decision was
I keep chickens. This morning, while eating kindly-provided eggs, I
thought about our feathered friends, and their not-too-distant relatives, the dinosaurs. They say that a
modern chicken shares 80% of its DNA with the pre-historic T-Rex. A small,
incremental change through each generation produced a seismic shift: from
killer carnivore to clucking creature.
While tucking in to my tastefully-seasoned yolk, my dino-daydream was
interrupted by a message on my mobile: one of the younger generation – a chick
by comparison – speaking nostalgically about ‘throwbacks’. This confused me at
first: back in my day, a ‘throwback’ didn’t necessarily mean something positive,
just something from an earlier period. Perhaps, at that moment, I got a glimpse
of how the T-Rex might feel about the chicken.
Is the language I grew up with slowly going extinct? When I open my
mouth, do linguistic pterodactyls fly out? This worried me for a moment, but
then I remembered: seismic shifts are often just made of many small,
incremental changes. Dinosaurs still live among us: they just cluck a little
more than they used to.
They present challenges in translation but acronyms are part of our daily lives. We go SCUBA-diving, see a LASER light show, and bemoan the proliferation of QUANGOs. These are words that are formed from the first letters of other words; for instance, SCUBA = Self-Contained in Underwater Breathing Apparatus.
Many acronyms are names of organizations (NASA), computing terms (BASIC), or financial products (TESSA) but some encapsulate new concepts or phenomena in a memorable way. Ever since the YUPPIEs and NIMBYs of the 1980s, market researchers and others have coined snappy terms to describe new social types: we’ve encountered KIPPERS – older offspring still living at home with their parents (Kids In Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings) and NEETs (young people Not in Education, Employment, or Training), while SKI-ers refers to parents who are Spending their Kids’ Inheritance (though not necessarily on the slopes).
More recently texting has produced thousands of new acronyms. A couple of my favourites: TL;DR meaning Too Long, Didn’t Read (an excuse for not wading through particularly wordy content) and YOLO meaning You Only Live Once (an excuse for doing something you probably shouldn’t be doing).