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Interesting facts about our language

Do you want to hear some interesting language facts? You don’t? Well, I’ll just tell you some anyway.

You see, as soon as I happened upon these facts, I felt it would be remiss of me not to share them with you. It’s the kind of caring columnist I am.

I’m picking that you don’t know, for example, that a small quantity of food left on a plate is called a “tittynope”, or that if you wrote out all the numbers as words [one, two three etc] you would not use the letter B until you reached a billion.

And there are more where those came from.

There is apparently a word for the little blob of toothpaste on your toothbrush. It’s called a nurdle. That’s a word you may have heard in cricket commentary [to score runs by gently nudging the ball into vacant areas of the field]. It’s over to you whether you want to include it in your dental care vocabulary but it is quite fun to say.

Another fun word is that which describes a sudden downpour of fat raindrops. It’s a “thunderplump”.

I’ll certainly be dropping that into appropriate conversations: “Dress wisely as we’re due
for some thunderplumps.”

In the 1840s it was considered childish to smile for photographs, so people didn’t say the word “cheese”; they were encouraged to say “prunes” to keep their mouths taut. This will explain why so many 1840s photos feature people with taut mouths.

The letter J was the last letter added to the English language. It was added in 1524 and, before that, the letter I was used in its stead. Jujitsu would be iuiitsu.

I’m sure you would agree that language should be an integral part of a national anthem – stirring, patriotic stuff about bravery and forbearance. Well, the Spanish national anthem Marcha Real has no words. The same goes for the anthems of Bosnia, Herzegovina, Kosovo and San Marino.

We’re so used to lustily voicing the lyrics of ours that we would probably feel a bit silly just standing dumbly for any of those. I suppose it’s good news for those who can’t remember lyrics easily – no need to pretend to mouth the words. Wrongly.

The word “bookkeeper” [and its associate “bookkeeping”] is the only unhyphenated word which features three consecutive double letters. Others, like “sweet-toothed” require a hyphen.

The word “uncopyrightable” is the longest English word in normal use that contains no letter more than once.

To prove that English is a complicated language, the sound “-ough” can be pronounced nine different ways. “A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed”. In a similar vein, there are seven ways to spell the sound “ee” in English.

I believe it is pretty common knowledge that no English word rhymes with “orange”.

Fewer of us might know that the same applies to “month”, “silver”, and “purple”. Avoid these words at the end of lines if you are trying to write a limerick.

It is widely known that English is full of irregularities which certainly add to the difficulty of learning our language. But to make things even worse, English is full of contronyms, words which have contradictory meanings depending on context. “Buckle”, to cite but one example, can mean to connect or to collapse.

Let’s finish on a positive note with the news that English is said to be a happy language. The word “happy” is used three times more often than the word “sad”.

I hope you feel richer for knowing these things. If not, you should have alerted me right back at the beginning.

    Wyn Drabble is a teacher of English, a writer, musician and public speaker.

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