etymology, Uncategorized

PPFF #166: names, again

Good morning,

I often hear people complain. Complaining about ‘other people’. And recently I heard someone quite subtly and passive-aggressively grumble about Chinese people and ‘their’ practice of adopting ‘English’ names. They sounded almost offended by what is basically a lazy attempt at ‘cultural assimilation’ through ‘nominal appropriation’ – such that it caught my attention. But it also made me wonder, ‘English names’? What are English names? John? Kimberly? Peter? Kevin? I had to google for hours to no avail; at least as far as the origins of these common ‘English’ names are concerned, I couldn’t find an English name. Not one. It turns out, a lot of the names we give to children in the UK are either Celtic or Hebrew in origin (I don’t know the respective percentage).

Take John for example, a very common English name, but really how English is it, when you consider that it is an anglicised Hebrew name originally transliterated into Greek and then Latin Ioannes, meaning “Yahweh is Gracious”. Peter? Peter It’s from the Greek word ‘petros’ meaning stone/rock, a direct translation of ‘cephas’ or ‘keppa’, an Aramaic word meaning the same. Kevin? That’s just a failed attempt to pronounce and spell a common Irish name ‘Caoimhín’, by the English.

Long story short, if a Jewish singer can change his German name (Zimmerman) to a distinctly Welsh-sounding name (Dylan), and get away with it, I’d say, leave them Chinese people alone.

Have an open-minded Friday.


PPFF #145:puffin poo

Good morning,

I learnt something quite cool this week. This is how I came across it.

Someone from the office brought in ‘puffin poo’. Not the actual faecal substance from the birds (not least because that would be in violation of HSE regulations and/or social protocol) but ‘delicious white Belgian chocolate with toasted rice and mallow, hand rolled in coconut’ from Shetlands, whose appearance vaguely resembles animal droppings. To learn more about actual puffin guano, I googled ‘puffin’. One of Google’s suggestions was ‘puffin crossings’. Unwittingly I clicked on that link. Then I found out that ‘puffin’ in ‘puffin crossing’ is a loose acronym for Pedestrian User Friendly INtelligent’ or a ‘backronym’. What’s a ‘backronym’? It’s a specially constructed phrase claimed to be an acronym, which in many cases are contrived to spell an existing word; a ‘type of folk etymology’, Wikipedia said. Now what the heck is ‘folk etymology’? Basically it’s a false origin story of a word that language experts know so little about that laypersons like you and I come up with something that sounds plausible as the origin of a particular word or phrase. A well-known example would be ‘posh’, abbreviated from ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’, originating from the fact that the most expensive cabins on ship would be on the port side going out, and the starboard side when it’s homebound. This is absolute rubbish, of course but it sounds so logical that it ought to be true and if it weren’t true, you want it to be true. Anyhow, after a few more clicks later, my mini click quest came to a satisfying end when I eventually stopped on the page that explained the real origin of the word ‘female’.

Like a lot of words in English, the word ‘female’ came from the French word ‘femelle’, which was a diminutive form of ‘femme’(woman), meaning ‘young woman’ (like madame and mademoiselle). Some centuries later English speakers, unfamiliar with suffix –elle, altered its spelling to ‘female’, to be morphologically in line with the existing word ‘male’, to appear in contrast, sort of like how ‘aluminum’ changed to ‘aluminium’ to appear similar to other existing metallic element names such as potassium etc.

It’s strange but it seems to me that some people have an innate desire to make sense of things that they come across, even if they’re not true, preferring  coherence over facts. Food for thought. 

Have a thoughtful Friday