09 February 2008

Curiosities of the English language

Emile Littre was a famous grammarian; when his wife discovered him making love one afternoon to the household's maid, she drew back and said, "I am surprised." Ever the man of letters, Littre, buttoning his clothing, replied, "No, madame, you are astonished. I am the one who is surprised."

"The exception that proves the rule." The etymology of that cliche, usually mistaken for a reversed meaning, is not "prove" in the sense of verify, but "probe" in the sense of test or challenge. This definition, from the Latin probare, is not entirely archaic in English - consider printer's proof, or a proving ground for testing weapons.

How did the term “rhubarb” come to refer to a baseball altercation?
The Latins called the plant “rhabarbarum” because it grew in the foreign (barbarian) land along the river Rha, better known now as the Volga. In Shakespeare’s time, the sullen sound of the word “rhubarb” led to a practice of actors repeatedly mumbling it offstage to give the impression of angry talk. By the time baseball became popular, “a rhubarb” had become a commonly accepted term for an argument.

The characters OUGH represent five different sounds, in bough, cough, tough, trough, and dough.

The difference between a smokestack and a chimney is that to be a smokestack it must be more than 100 feet tall, according to the definition of the Comite International des Cheminees Industrielles.

Ambrose Burnside was a Union general in the Civil War. He was a big man, with ample, bushy whiskers billowing around a clean-shaven chin. After the war, Burnside's style of whiskers became so popular they were dubbed "burnsides." Over the years, the name was transposed to the current "sideburns."

Torpenow Hill near Plymouth, England means "hill hill hill hill." - from Saxon tor, Celtic pen, Scandinavian how, Middle English hill.

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