Do You Have German Ancestors?

For anyone researching German, Swiss or Austrian ancestors, it’s obviously useful to speak some German. However, if you don’t, there are certain pitfalls. Here are a few hints to help you avoid them:

  1. The letter known as “scharfes s” or “sz”: it looks like this: ß. It is not a B, but represents a double ”s” and derives from the use of a long s “∫” followed by a short s or z – “∫s” or “∫z” in cursive script. So a name such as “Hanß” is just a different way of writing “Hanss”. 
  2. Umlaut letters (ä, ö, ü): the two dots above the letter are the remnant of an “e”, so ä = ae, ö = oe and ü = ue. Sometimes you will find a name such as Müller also written as Mueller, or similarly Möbius as Moebius.
  3. Dialects: German has an infinite number of dialect variations, resulting in a range of different phonetic spellings for the same name, eg, Snyder for Schneider. This can also affect place names, so your ancestor might have come from Hauenstein in the Palatinate of the Rhine, which in local dialect sounds like “Häschde”. These variations can be very challenging if you are unfamiliar with the dialect.
  4. Variations in spelling: Not only family names but also first names can also vary greatly in the way they were written at different times. Johannes can be Johann, Hannes, Hans, Hanss or Hanß. Margarethe appears with or without an “h”, but also as Grete, Grethe, Gretha, Gretel, Gretchen, Margrit, or even Marguerite in the era when French was fashionable. I have also found a Scheneta in our tree – baptised Johanna, but living in a bilingual region, she was obviously called Jeanette in everyday life. Schmid, Schmidt, Schmied, Schmitt are all variations on the same name.   
  5. Diminutives: names such as “Hans”, “Fritz”, “Klaus”, “Grete” are short for Johannes, Friedrich, Nikolaus and Margarethe. Those aren’t so difficult, but what about these? Stoffel or Stophel(Christopher), Welti (Walter), Kop / Cop / Coup / Kobe / Köbi (Jakob), Jost (Justus), Clais or Gleß (Klaus). It’s customary in German to add the suffix –chen or -lein to a word or name to indicate “small”. In some dialects, these may be pronounced as “-gen” or “-lin” or (in Switzerland especially) “-li”. Thus, Vreny or Vreneli is Verena,  Vroni or Vroneli is Veronica,  Fritzli is Friedrich,  Glesgen, Gleßgen = Kläuschen = little Klaus or Nikolaus. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was «Wölferl» to his family and friends.
  6. Von: it means “of” or “from”, but is also used to indicate nobility eg, Johann von Goethe. In most cases, though, it can be a useful hint as to the person’s place of origin. It may refer to a town, a village or even a homestead, which could be difficult to trace and may no longer exist.
  7. Feminine ending “-in”: the wife and unmarried daughters are sometimes recorded under the husband’s or father’s name with the addition of this ending. It usually goes on the end of the surname, eg, Wendel / Wendelin, Michel / Michelin
  8. Latin Genitive case: where records are in Latin, especially in the Roman catholic church, the names of the parents will usually be in the genitive or possessive case. For instance “Hans, son of Jakob and Anna” becomes “Johannes, Jacobi et Annae filius”. In some families, this genitive form of the father’s name became the family surname borne by all his descendants. Most people were illiterate and names were spelled phonetically, so sometimes the final “-I” became a “-y”.This explains the origin of names like Jacobi or Jacoby, Petri or Petry (of Jacob, of Peter)
  9. Latinisation: sometimes, families rising socially liked to give themselves a more pretentious-sounding name and would therefore translate it into Latin. Thus, Schmidt (meaning smith) became Faber, and Schneider (tailor) became Sartor or Sartorius. Others simply latinised the German name, such as our ancestor called Langohr (from a nickname meaning “long ear”) who was latinised as Langorius. 
  10. Latin addenda: Roman Catholic church records in Latin sometimes contain additional information in the form of short notes, such as “pelegrinus” or “vagabundus” in the case of a person who was not a local resident. These are not part of the name nor are they pejorative! They simply indicate that the individual (or the parents, in the case of a baptism) had come from somewhere else. 
  11. Jewish name changes: Equality laws during the Enlightenment gave Jews equal rights (on paper, at least) and that also included certain obligations, such as adopting a standard family name (which had not been the case before). Hence they were able to choose their names, often romantic-sounding or flowery names such as Rosenthal or Blumenfeld, or based on the name of the house they lived in such as Rothschild (house of the red shield). Antisemitism is sadly not new. Many families chose an “ordinary” name like Müller or Weber in order to be less conspicuously Jewish. So if the line you are tracing suddenly ends in thin air in this period, it might be that your ancestors were Jewish.

I hope these hints are useful, and if I come across any other stumbling-blocks for non-German-speakers I’ll add to the list.

Impostor Syndrome?

I’m no shrinking violet by any means, but nor am I one to blow my own trumpet loudly. I am, before all else, English! From an early age, I was taught not to push myself forward but to “wait to be asked”. So that’s what I do. Sometimes it pays off. A couple of events this last week have served to boost my self-esteem more than usual and I’d like to share these with you while the glow still lasts

As you can see from the headings at the top of this blog, I also run a blog devoted to my English translations of poems by the German Jewish writer Nelly Sachs. My main purpose in posting these is to help make Nelly Sachs’ work known and accessible among English-speaking audiences who would otherwise be unable to appreciate the original German poems. 

Several people have asked permission to use this or that poem for specific events and I’m constantly coming across others on the Internet who have reproduced them without my explicit permission in all kinds of contexts. I see that as positive, because my chief aim in publishing them has always been to make the voice of Nelly Sachs heard among English speakers, so provided I’m given credit, I’m OK with that.  

I was approached a few weeks ago by Elly Sullivan, an American student, who requested permission to read aloud one of my translations at a Holocaust Memorial Event taking place at her college in Maryland, followed by an invitation to participate via Zoom in a virtual conference on literary translation that was being hosted by her college on Saturday, 9 April. This intrigued me, so I accepted.

After the initial contact with Elly, I knew that here was someone sensitive, sensible and reliable that I could trust and work with. We devised a format for the presentation based on an interview with me about these poems, the poet Nelly Sachs and all the whys and wherefores of my labour of love as represented by the blog. Because of the time difference between Maryland and Switzerland, we were allotted a slot in the morning immediately after the introduction to the conference, which was convenient for me as it was 4 pm here, a time when my brain is usually firing on all four cylinders. 

On the Saturday morning a week before the conference Elly and I took our presentation through a trial run with her erudite poetry group who very kindly gave us their feedback. This was encouraging and constructive, enabling us to make some adjustments and decide which poems to include in Elly’s PowerPoint presentation, to be discussed in the interview.  

Then just a few days later I found a request on my Nelly Sachs blog for permission to use my translation  “Chorus of the Consolers” in a talk being given in another conference on the Literature of Trauma at the university of Marburg, Germany – this conference had already started and was being streamed live! They were very relieved to have my consent, as the talk was in English and it had only occurred to them at the last moment that they didn’t have an English version of the poem (a crucial part of the talk), so I was also invited to watch and listen to that informative and interesting speech. 

Thanks are due to Covid for the rise of Zoom in these last two years, which makes connecting with people so much easier. From my couch here in Switzerland I am able to join others all over the world, so simply and comfortably.

To my relief and delight, back in Maryland yesterday the live-streamed Confluence interview / presentation entitled “Antidote and Access:  Literary Translation in the Blogosphere”  went smoothly, and  feedback on the live chat was very encouraging, full of praise, encouragement and superlatives that made my head grow several sizes too big for my bonnet. This interview was also recorded, so will be available at some point on the website of Montgomery College if any of my readers and followers are interested. (I’ll add the link when it’s all set up.) I hope Elly gets the A+ she deserves for all her work.

You may be asking: What’s all that about “Antidote and Access”? For decades before I retired I was earning my bread and butter – and sometimes a good dollop of jam – from technical and commercial translations, so the creative process of translating poetry really was an antidote at that time to the materialistic prose of the business world. And as for access, the Internet and blogosphere has the edge over a printed book by making blog content available and accessible free of charge to anyone capable of googling; my Nelly Sachs blog has received getting on for 121,000 hits – not bad for a poet whom only the elite few have even heard of. There’s also the extra bonus for me, that I can revise my English versions and add to my selection at any time with no difficulty. 

Still, could this lead to publication in book form? That, I must admit, would be gratifying and fun: I started my labour of love almost 30 years ago and though the work has been intermittent with long gaps – sometimes years – between poems, I don’t see an end to it! Nelly Sachs wrote several hundred poems, so there’s a long way to go yet. My currently inflated ego thinks it would be nice to see them in print. Who knows? I must confess to feeling like something of an impostor, and am still waiting to be asked. But – remember Grandma Moses! She was actually even younger than me when she was discovered.

Exploring That Rabbit Hole Again …

Whoo-hoo! Sliding down that rabbit warren again, and picking at etymologies like itchy pimples!

It started with “cousin”. I have hundreds of them, first, second and several times removed. I wanted to know the exact definition, and where the English word came from. Well, I never realized anyone could be so specific in the degrees of consanguinity.  Having studied Latin at school aeons ago, I remembered only pater, mater (mother and father), frater, soror (brother, sister) avus, ava and avunculus (grandfather, grandmother and uncle).

However, the following Roman family round-up made my eyes water! My informative website says of the word Cousin:

early 13c., “a collateral blood relative more remote than a brother or sister” (mid-12c. as a surname), from Old French cosin “nephew; kinsman; cousin” (12c., Modern French cousin), from Latin consobrinus “cousin,” originally “mother’s sister’s son,” from assimilated form of com “with, together” (see com-) + sobrinus (earlier *sosrinos) “cousin on mother’s side,” from soror (genitive sororis) “sister” (see sister).

Specific modern usage, “the son or daughter of an uncle or aunt,” is attested by c. 1300, but throughout Middle English the word also was used of grandchildren, godchildren, etc. Extended sense of “closely related thing” is from late 14c.

Italian cugino, Danish kusine, Polish kuzyn also are from French. German vetter is from Old High German fetiro “uncle,” perhaps on the notion of “child of uncle.” Words for cousin tend to drift to “nephew” on the notion of “father’s nephew.”

Many IE languages (including Irish, Sanskrit, Slavic, and some of the Germanic tongues) have or had separate words for some or all of the eight possible “cousin” relationships, such as Latin, which along with consobrinus had consobrina “mother’s sister’s daughter,” patruelis “father’s brother’s son,” atruelis “mother’s brother’s son,” amitinus “father’s sister’s son,” etc. Old English distinguished fæderan sunu “father’s brother’s son,” modrigan sunu “mother’s sister’s son,” etc.

Used familiarly as a term of address since early 15c., especially in Cornwall. Phrase kissing cousin is a Southern U.S. expression, 1940s, apparently denoting “those close enough to be kissed in salutation;” Kentish cousin (1796) is an old British term for “distant relative.” For cousin german “first cousin” (early 14c.) see german (adj.).

(Do follow those links – it’s fascinating!!)

OK,  so let’s look at some other relatives. The word uncle is clearly straight from avunculus and in English avuncular is still used, but there’s more:

late 13c., from Old French oncle, from Latin avunculus “mother’s brother” (“father’s brother” was patruus), literally “little grandfather,” diminutive of avus “grandfather,” from PIE root *awo-“grandfather, adult male relative other than one’s father” (source also of Armenian hav “grandfather,” Hittite huhhas “grandfather,” Lithuanian avynas “maternal uncle,” Old Church Slavonic uji “uncle,” Welsh ewythr “uncle”). Boutkan, however, says “the root probably denoted members of the family of the mother.” 

Replaced Old English eam (usually maternal; paternal uncle was fædera), which represents the Germanic form of the same root (source also of Dutch oom “uncle, grandfather, brother-in-law,” Old High German oheim “maternal uncle, son of a sister” German Ohm “uncle,” Old Norse afi“grandfather”).

Also from French are German, Danish, Swedish onkel. As a familiar title of address to an old man, attested by 1793; in the U.S. South, especially “a kindly title for a worthy old negro” [Century Dictionary]. First record of Dutch uncle (and his blunt, stern, benevolent advice) is from 1838; Welsh uncle (1747) was the male first cousin of one’s parent. To say uncle as a sign of submission in a fight is North American, attested from 1909, of uncertain signification.

So Uncles appear generally in a positive light. Now what about aunt? She’s a mixed blessing:

1300, from Anglo-French aunte, Old French ante (Modern French tante, from a 13c. variant), from Latin amita “paternal aunt” diminutive of *amma a baby-talk word for “mother” (source also of Greek amma “mother,” Old Norse amma “grandmother,” Middle Irish ammait “old hag,” Hebrew em, Arabic umm “mother”).

Extended senses include “an old woman, a gossip” (1580s); “a procuress” (1670s); and “any benevolent woman,” in American English, where auntie was recorded since c. 1790 as “a term often used in accosting elderly women.” The French word also has become the word for “aunt” in Dutch, German (Tante), and Danish.

Swedish has retained the original Germanic (and Indo-European) custom of distinguishing aunts by separate terms derived from “father’s sister” (faster) and “mother’s sister” (moster). The Old English equivalents were faðu and modrige. In Latin, too, the formal word for “aunt on mother’s side” was matertera. Some languages have a separate term for aunts-in-law as opposed to blood relations.

I heaved a sigh of relief that I didn’t grow up speaking one of those languages, and having to distinguish the bloodlines of all my aunts, uncles and cousins!

From families to orphans. Now that is a strange-looking word, and although I knew that it’s orphelin in French, that didn’t really help. Did you know that etymologically, orphans are linked to robots? (Just click on the word robot in the excerpt below.) Seems they have been exploited forever.

Here we go – and look out for the goblins!

orphan (n.)

1300, from Late Latin orphanus “parentless child” (source of Old French orfeno, Italian orfano), from Greek orphanos “orphaned, without parents, fatherless,” literally “deprived,” from orphos “bereft,” from PIE *orbho- “bereft of father,” also “deprived of free status,” from root *orbh- “to change allegiance, to pass from one status to another” (source also of Hittite harb- “change allegiance,” Latin orbus “bereft,” Sanskrit arbhah “weak, child,” Armenian orb “orphan,” Old Irish orbe “heir,” Old Church Slavonic rabu “slave,” rabota “servitude” (see robot), Gothic arbja, German erbe, Old English ierfa “heir,” Old High German arabeit, German Arbeit “work,” Old Frisian arbed, Old English earfoð “hardship, suffering, trouble”). As an adjective from late 15c.

The Little Orphan Annie U.S. newspaper comic strip created by Harold Gray (1894-1968) debuted in 1924 in the New York “Daily News.” Earlier it was the name (as Little Orphant Annie) of the character in James Whitcomb Riley’s 1885 poem, originally titled “Elf Child”:

LITTLE Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,

An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,

An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,

An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an’ earn her board-an’-keep;

An’ all us other childern, when the supper-things is done,

We set around the kitchen fire an’ has the mostest fun

A-list’nin’ to the witch-tales ‘at Annie tells about,

An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you

Ef you





Further down the rabbit hole

Back in the antediluvian days when I was an undergraduate, I took a course in Comparative Philology, nowadays called Comparative Linguistics. I was hooked. Our lecturer was a learned Welsh professor able to describe with a perfectly straight face but twinkling eyes such arcane ideas on the origins of language as the “ta-ta theory”, “pooh-pooh theory” or “bow-wow theory”. If you want to know about these, click here. He also introduced us to the Proto-Indo-European language. It’s a subject that has continued to enthral me, and offers not just one rabbit hole but an entire warren. Hence my interest in etymologies.

For some time I have been wondering about words like uncouth and unkempt that look like negatives but don’t seem to have a positive counterpart – at least, not in modern English, except where there are back-formations. Of course, at some point in the evolution of our vernacular people must have been described as couth and kempt, but when did the messies get the upper hand?

Back to my latest favourite site, Etymon.

Unkempt is straightforward enough. I know that kempt must have some relationship to the German kämmen / Kamm (comb) so this was no surprise:

1570s, from un- (1) “not” + kempt “well-combed, neat,” from variant past participle of Middle English kemben “to comb,” from Old English cemban “to comb,” from Proto-Germanic *kambijan, from *kamb- “comb” (from PIE root *gembh- “tooth, nail.” ). Form unkembed is recorded from late 14c. The verb kemb is rare after 1400s, but its negative past participle form endures.

I tried to resist the temptation to find out at what point in ancient history our unkempt ancestors decided to make teeth and nails into combs, and tidy themselves up a bit (5,000 years ago, it seems). But I have other parts of the warren to explore at the moment. So on to uncouth. There are some remarkable divagations connected with this, and I was surprised to find that it derives from the intransitive verb can (sorry about the repetition here, but I’m quoting verbatim):


Old English uncuð “unknown, strange, unusual; uncertain, unfamiliar; unfriendly, unkind, rough,” from un- (1) “not” + cuð “known, well-known,” past participle of cunnan “to know” (see can (v.1)), from PIE root *gno- “to know.” Meaning “strange, crude, clumsy” is first recorded 1510s. The compound (and the thing it describes) widespread in IE languages, such as Latin ignorantem, Old Norse ukuðr, Gothic unkunþs, Sanskrit ajnatah, Armenian ancanaut’, Greek agnotos, Old Irish ingnad “unknown.”

Can is the Old English 1st & 3rd person singular present indicative of cunnan “to know,” less commonly as an auxiliary, “to have power to, to be able,” (also “to have carnal knowledge”), from Proto-Germanic *kunnjanan “to be mentally able, to have learned” (source also of Old Norse kenna “to become acquainted, try,” Old Frisian kanna “to recognize, admit, know,” German kennen “to know,” Middle Dutch kennen “to know,” Gothic kannjan “to make known”), from PIE root *gno- “to know.”

It holds now only the third sense of “to know,” that of “to know how to do something” (as opposed to “to know as a fact” and “to be acquainted with” something or someone). Also used in the sense of may, denoting mere permission. An Old English preterite-present verb, its original past participle, couth, survived only in negation (see uncouth), but compare could. The present participle has spun off with a deflected sense as cunning.

Middle English couth “known, well-known; usual, customary,” from Old English cuðe “known,” past participle of cunnan “to know,” less commonly “to have power to, to be able” (see can (v.1)).

As a past participle it died out 16c. with the emergence of could, but the old word was reborn 1896, with a new sense of “cultured, refined,” as a back-formation from uncouth (q.v.). The Old English word forms the first element in the masc. proper name Cuthbert, which literally means “famous-bright.”

That’s maybe some consolation for the poor lads saddled with that particular saint’s name.

The link between can and know was new to me. I was aware that English used to differentiate between the different senses of to know, in ken and wit (cognate with modern German kennen and wissen), and we have remnants of these old verbs in “D’ye ken John Peel?” and “to wit” or “unwittingly”. And so I moved on to wit and wise, which brought me to wizard and witch (look these four up yourself – fascinating!), and so full circle back to PIE *weg– and the other related words listed in my previous post.

I’ve spent a few hours down this particular hole, so time to crawl out and get on with something useful! Has this inspired anyone else to investigate any interesting etymologies?

Down the rabbit hole …

I’ve found another rabbit hole: I idly consulted the Online Etymological Dictionary   –  a sure sign that I have time on my hands again.

It started off, as these things usually do, innocently enough with the word feckless. I wondered just what we were accusing that person of, when we put this label on him. Should he be endeavouring to become feckfull? Well, actually, he probably should. Etymonline says:


1590s, from feck, “effect, value, vigor” (late 15c.), Scottish shortened form of effect (n.), + -less. Popularized by Carlyle, who left its opposite, feckful, in dialectal obscurity. Related: Fecklessly; fecklessness.”

From feckless to reckless. I had an inkling that this was connected to “reckon” and Gerard Manley Hopkins lovely word “reck” (“Why do men then now not reck his rod?“ in God’s Grandeur ), and I was right. But there’s more to it:


Old English receleas “careless, thoughtless, heedless,” earlier reccileas, from *rece, recce “care, heed,” from reccan “to care” (see reck (v.)) + -less. The same affixed form is in German ruchlos, Dutch roekeloos “wicked.” Root verb reck (Old English reccan) is passing into obscurity.

No back-formation to reckful, yet. Maybe our heedless world can’t grasp that concept? But the word wicked caught my eye here: It looks like a past participle, but is it? Is there an old verb to wick with evil connotations? No, but look where this got me:

1200, extended form of earlier wick “bad, wicked, false” (12c.), which apparently is an adjectival use of Old English wicca“wizard” (see witch). Formed as if a past participle, but there is no corresponding verb. For evolution, compare wretched from wretch. Slang ironic sense of “wonderful” first attested 1920, in F. Scott Fitzgerald. As an adverb from early 15c. Related: Wickedly.

*weg-  Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to be strong, be lively.” It forms all or part of:
vigilvigilantvigilantevigorwaftwaitwake (v.) “emerge or arise from sleep;” waken;

It is the hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Sanskrit vajah “force, strength,” vajayati “drives on;” Latin vigil “watchful, awake,” vigere “be lively, thrive,” velox “fast, lively,” vegere “to enliven,” vigor “liveliness, activity;” Old English wacan “to become awake,” German wachen “to be awake,” Gothic wakan “to watch.”

I’ll leave you to look those up yourselves (you should get there by clicking on them), but even if you aren’t a happy camper do check out bivouac:

1702, “encampment of soldiers that stays up on night watch in the open air, dressed and armed,” from French bivouac (17c.), said to be a word from the Thirty Years’ War, ultimately from Swiss/Alsatian biwacht “night guard,” from bei- (from Old High German bi- “by,” here perhaps as an intensive prefix; see by) + wacht “guard” (from Proto-Germanic *wahtwo, from PIE root *weg- “to be strong, be lively”). Sense of “outdoor camp” is from 1853. According to OED not a common word in English before the Napoleonic Wars. Italian bivacco is from French. As a verb, 1809, “to post troops in the night;” meaning “camp out-of-doors without tents” is from 1814.

From one apparent past participle to another: what about naked? Another trouvaille!


Old English nacod “nude, bare; empty,” also “not fully clothed,” from Proto-Germanic *nakwadaz (source also of Old Frisian nakad, Middle Dutch naket, Dutch naakt, Old High German nackot, German nackt, Old Norse nökkviðr, Old Swedish nakuþer, Gothic naqaþs “naked”), from PIE root *nogw- “naked” (source also of Sanskrit nagna, Hittite nekumant-, Old Persian *nagna-, Greek gymnos, Latin nudus, Lithuanian nuogas, Old Church Slavonic nagu-, Russian nagoi, Old Irish nocht, Welsh noeth “bare, naked”). Related: Nakedlynakedness. Applied to qualities, actions, etc., from late 14c. (first in “The Cloud of Unknowing”); phrase naked truth is from 1585, in Alexander Montgomerie’s “The Cherry and the Slae”:

Which thou must (though it grieve thee) grant
I trumped never a man.
But truely told the naked trueth,
To men that meld with mee,
For neither rigour, nor for rueth,
But onely loath to lie.

[Montgomerie, 1585]

Phrase naked as a jaybird (1943) was earlier naked as a robin (1879, in a Shropshire context); the earliest known comparative based on it was naked as a needle (late 14c.). Naked eye is from 1660s, unnecessary in the world before telescopes and microscopes.

Now – read that little verse again. Especially the second and third lines:

“I trumped never a man
But truly told the naked truth”

I couldn’t resist looking up “trump”:

“”fabricate, devise,” 1690s, from trump “deceive, cheat” (1510s), from Middle English trumpen (late 14c.), from Old French tromper “to deceive,” of uncertain origin. Apparently from se tromper de “to mock,” from Old French tromper “to blow a trumpet.” Brachet explains this as “to play the horn, alluding to quacks and mountebanks, who attracted the public by blowing a horn, and then cheated them into buying ….” The Hindley Old French dictionary has baillier la trompe “blow the trumpet” as “act the fool,” and Donkin connects it rather to trombe “waterspout,” on the notion of turning (someone) around. Connection with triumph also has been proposed. Related: TrumpedtrumpingTrumped up “false, concocted” first recorded 1728.”

Need I say more?

(Don’t worry –  this rabbit hole is endless!)




English As She Should Be Spoke

Over the course of a lifetime, I’ve seen many strange messages written on the back of lavatory doors, and as a translator and former language teacher, I’m super sensitive to quirky formulations in any of the languages in which I’m proficient, so when I saw this in a public toilet I just had to snap it for posterity.


Rhyming couplets are a popular form of humorous doggerel in German, but sadly, a literal translation into the other languages with no rhyme or rhythm just results in puzzlement. The humour is also lost. Are you supposed to sweep the place? Not deface the walls with graffiti?  No, just look back at the lavatory bowl and if necessary, use the brush to wipe it clean in consideration of the person who will be following you here. A request to leave the place as you would wish to find it. But I wonder how many English, Italian or French speakers actually understood this, if they didn’t speak German? Did anyone attempt to clean the toilet with a broom (scopa, balai)?

Through the years, I have acquired a small collection of these awkward translations. One that made me giggle was on a menu in Brittany, where croque-monsieur was translated fairly adequately into English as “ham and cheese on toast” and then into German as “Schinken und Käse am Trinkspruch”. For non-German-speakers, the word “Trinkspruch” is indeed toast,  but refers to raising your glass to drink to a person’s health – “toast” in the non-bread sense.

Another one from Brittany:


Here the sense is clear enough, and I trust that any English speakers on “earing the audio signal” were not drowned. Someone must have commented on this sign, as it was later removed and replaced by a version in perfectly correct English.

The following label adorned a pair of jeans I once bought:


I was never able to confirm whether the expert ‘s tasting was accurate, as I don’t ride, but I don’t recall deriving any particular pleasure in the street from wearing this garment!

Finally, a notice enclosed with a packet of tea, beautifully calligraphed in Chinese on the reverse, that did indeed afford my mother “exceedingly noble enjoyment”. She wasn’t so impressed by the tea, but did like the idea of “merrily drinking” it. We never discovered if it really did enlighten drunkenness and cure sunstroke.


Learning New Vocabulary

My inner Victor Meldrew exploded as we were rehearsing our worship songs.
“I don’t believe it!”
“Did you make this word up?”
“No, it’s a regular word.”

Poor longsuffering Fred, accused of inventing an outlandish word, had no idea why I was so incensed. Apparently, for a long time now, musicians have been referring to the short instrumental closing passage of a song, the opposite of an “intro”, as an “outro”. I have been living on Planet Zog, obviously.

Is it necessary to invent a new word for this? What’s wrong with “coda”? Nah. That’s not the same. I really didn’t believe it but checked Google, and it agreed with Fred: used not only in music but as closing credits for a film or video game, and even for a work of literature or journalism.

So – is there a longer form, “outroduction”? Can it also be used as the opposite of introduction in a social setting, for instance when you deliberately avoid meeting a new person, or part from the person you have just been introduced to?

My dismay was due to the failure to acknowledge the Latin root, intro + ducere, to lead into. The opposite should be ex (or even extra) + ducere, and there is a perfectly good Latin verb educere meaning to lead out, which gives us eduction. In fact, extraduction (a nice panvocalic word by the way) though rare, also exists, but has nothing to do with music. Can’t subvert those, then. And “extro”? seems that has also already been taken.

I must return from Planet Zog and accept that since hardly anyone nowadays bothers about Latin or the derivation of words – and what a loss that is! Another post starting to simmer in my head on the subject! – we are going to get a lot more bastard coinages like “outro”. In fact, I just came across another one: “Freemium”.

I surrender.

Charlie and George

“Charlie’s dead” – “I’ll go and see George.”

When I was at school in the nineteen-fifties, that was code for: “Your underskirt is showing below the hem of your skirt“ – “I’ll go to the toilets to adjust it.”


Photo credit: … and yes, we did wear these under our school uniform summer dresses!

The phrase suddenly popped into my head this morning and made me smile. Does anyone wear petticoats or underskirts nowadays? The purpose of the bouffant petticoats (starched or dipped in sugar water) that we wore under our full skirts was obvious. And in addition to disguising a panty line, another reason given in our youth to justify wearing a slip under a straight or pencil skirt was; “it makes your skirt hang better”. A slip also saved our modesty, for instance when standing against the light, if the wind was blowing hard, or when jiving. No good girl wanted to show her suspenders and stocking tops!

There are plenty of euphemisms to tell a girl or woman that her slip is showing. “It’s snowing down south” is clear, and “Are you looking for a mother-in-law?” (“Tu cherches une belle-mère?”) was how the French would inform you; I have also heard this, in more accusatory tones, in German: “Du suchst eine Schwiegermutter!” The implication is, of course, that you are as loose as your underskirt’s elastic, flaunting its lacy edge to draw male attention. In Italian: “il vostro isolatore a campana sta mostrando” – your bell insulation is showing – is also plain enough. Those are not so farfetched.

But where on earth did the phrase “Charlie’s dead” come from? Was it generally current in the fifties, or only in our school? We also playfully translated it into Latin: Carolus mortus est. I googled it and discovered that it was indeed a current phrase, not only among my schoolmates, but used internationally along with “Queen Anne’s dead”. Why Queen Anne? The implication appears to be that “the flag is flying at half mast”.

But who was the deceased Charlie? Some suggest it was King Charles I (“loyalist women dipped their petticoats in his blood when he was beheaded” but that surely implies a red petticoat), King Charles II (a notorious womaniser: a reminder that there’s no need to show your petticoat because he isn’t around anymore to respond) or Bonnie Prince Charlie who wore a lot of lace. Another explanation – apart from the flag at half-mast – dates it from WWII when window blinds were lowered to mark a death in the family. Is it Cockney rhyming slang? This blog makes an effort but still doesn’t explain who was the original Charlie.

There are literally thousands of euphemisms for the lavatory in English, but what about “I’m going to see George”: was that just a phrase in our school circle, or was the discreet George more widely used? Americans often talk of “the john” but I haven’t heard anyone apart from my schoolmates refer to George. Google doesn’t recognise it. At least one of my regular readers was at school with me. So I’m calling on you, Marie: do you remember this phrase, and any idea where it came from?

Image credit:

The Black Country Nativity

I have just come across this, reprinted in the Black Country newspaper Express & Star, and reproduce it here in full, hoping I’m not infringing any copyrights:

The traditional Christmas nativity story has been told for countless generations . . . but not always quite like this! This version of the nativity was written by Londoner Michael Prescott, who came to the Black Country many years ago and discovered the area’s rich dialect while teaching the children at Sunday school. Using the words of the children he taught, he put together this unique Nativity story back in 1968.

Mary, er babby an a bostin tale

There was this girl called Mary and er lived in a place called Nazareth. One day er mum went out an er was left do do the ousewerk.

All of a sudden the room went all bright and when er turned round er sid somebody standin by the winder. Er wor arf surprised and nearly fell off er chair.

“Oom you?” er asked, “yo day arf gie me a tern.”

“Doh be scared,” answered the bloke. “I wo urt ya. Me name’s Gabriel, an arm an angel.”

“Yo ay, am yer?” said Mary.

“I am,” ee replied. “An I’ve cum to tell ya summat.

“What?” said Mary, cause er was thinking what a carry on this was.

Yo’m gooin ter av a babby.”

That shook er, and er looked at im an said: “Doh be saft. I ay marrid.”

“That do mek no difference,” ee answered. “If God says yo’ll av a babby, yo’ll ava a babby, yo will an that’s it. Yo’ve got ter call im Jesus.”

Mary was still a bit shook, so the angel said: “An arl tell yer summat else. Yo ay the only one oos gooin to ave a babby. Yer cousin Elizabeth is gooin ter ave one an all, an er’s an old woman.”

“Well, if you say so, ar suppose that’s it,” said Mary. “Me chap wo arf be surprised.”

When eed gone, Mary med up er mind to goo and see Elizabeth an went off ter Juda.

Elizabeth was waiting at the gate an when er saw Mary er said: “Ar ay arf glad to see yo, but fancy yo cummin to see we in yor state.”

Mary answered: “An angel cum an sid me, an arm gooin to av a babby in December.”

Elizabeth told Mary that er old man, Zacharias, day believe er when er told him about the babby, an ee were speechless.

“Ee cor spake a werd now,” er said.

The chap what Mary was engaged to was called Joseph. When Mary told im about the babby er was having, ee day know what to think.

Ee said: “Yor mum wo arf kick up a chow row.”

Any road, ee day get is air off, an when ee went ter bed that night, an angel cum to im in a dream. “Doh get mad at Mary about the babby,” ee told im.

“It’s God’s son er’s avin, an is name’s Jesus. Sumbody’s got ter av im, or ee wo get born, an yower Mary was picked.

“So just yo marry er, me mate. There ay nuthin ter worry about.”

Soon after they was married, Joseph cum in an told Mary: “Arv ad a letter from the tax mon, and that Ceasar says as we’ve got to goo to wheer we was born to be taxed. So we’ve go to traipse all the way to Bethlehem next wick.”

Mary cut sum sandwiches an packed a few cairkes an opples.

Then er med a bottle a tay, an when they’d ad a daysent breakfast, Joseph got the donkey out, put Mary on, an away they went.

“Cheer up, our kid. It ay far now,” Joseph told er.

“We’ll soon av a rest. I keep gettin bricks an sond in me sandals.”

When they got into town, Joseph knocked on the door of an inn an asked for a double room.

The bloke what answered said: “I cor elp yer. There’s that mony on em eere they’m avin ter sleep in the passage.”

The next un was like it an all, but Joseph said to the chap: “Ain’t there anywhere we can goo? My missus is out theer on a donkey, an er’s gooin ter av a babby soon.”

The chap scratched his yed and said: “We cleaned the stable out after tay, so it ay mucky. If I shift a couple of osses an a camel, you could kip down theer.”

“We’ll tek it,” said Joseph, straight off.

In the noight, Mary woke Joseph up an said: “The babby’s ere.” So Jesus was born, an they wrapped im up tight an put im in the manger what the osses et out on. Mary an Joseph wor arf proud. The innkeeper cum with is missus an brought Mary sum ot milk.

They thought Jesus was a bostin little lad an the innkeeper said to Joseph: “Yo’d better cum an av a drink to wet is yed.” So he did.

Up in the ills, there was sum shepherds luckin after the sheep. It was cold, so they was sittin by the fire lettin their dogs do the werk while they ad summat to eat an a smoke.

Suddenly the sky lit up loike bonfire noight, an an angel cum. They day know owt about angels and they was that frittened they all fell on the ground.

“Yo’m a silly lot,” said the angel. “I shore urt yer. I got a message for yer.

“There’s a baby bin born in Bethlehem. Is name is Jesus an ees God’s son. Goo an ave a look at im. Ee’s in a stable lyin in a manger.”

Any road up, they cum down the ill into Bethlehem. One said: “It’s or roight im sayin we’ll find the babby in a stable, but they’m all over the plairce. We cud be looking for wicks.” Then they eard their mate’s whistle an they fun em outside a stable built in a cave. Someone whispered: “Doh mek such a clatter. We’m ere.” One knocked on the door and Mary called: “Come in.”

They took off their ats an went in on tip toe.

The chief shepherd said: “Adoo missus. A angel tode we ter cum an see yower babby.”

Mary smiled and beckoned them in. Joseph said: “Eere ee is. Cum an look, but mind you doh breathe on is face.”

The shepherds knelt down round the manger an looked. “Ay ee tiny?” said the youngest. “An ay ee got little onds?”

“Course ee’s tiny, yo saft ayporth,” said the leader, “ee’s new, ay ee?”

“I know that,” said the young un, “but you cor imagine God bein little, can yer?”

Mary smiled an said: “Oil spin sum wool an knit im a jumper, an is dad’ll play the flute ter mek him sleep.”

The shepherds turned to goo, an little Jesus smiled. The leader said after as it wind, an all babbies did it, but ee wor as sure as ee med out.

While all this was a-gooin on, three wise kings was in a country far away lookin at stars.

Suddenly, one on em put down is telescope an called: “Cum eer yo lot. Oi’ve fun a star wot wor theer afore, and it ay arf a big un.”

“Yo’m roight mate,” they said then they looked. “Oil bet it’s that one what’s to tell us a new king was born.” They checked up an it was.

One day, they cum to Jerusalem an went up to the Palace an knocked on the door. A sentry opened it an they asked: “Is the King in?”

The sentry said: “Arf a mo, Oil goo an see.”

The King’s name was Erod, an ee was in.

“There’s three kings to see yo,” the soldier told im. “Oh ar?” said Erod. “Weer?” Ee ad a fit when the soldier told im “Outside.”

“Yo cor leave kings standin on the step,” said Erod. “Get em in.”

So they all come in, an Erod said ow noice to see em an wot cud ee do fer emn. They said they was looking fer a new king, and wondered if ee was theer.

Erod said: “Ee ay ere, but when yo’ve fun im, drop in on the way back so’s Oi can goo anay a look meself.”

They said “Righto,” an off they went.

When they’d gone, Erod said to isself: “Theer’s ony room fer one king ere, an Oi’m it. When Oi know weer the new un is, Oi’ll have im killed.”

The star stopped over the ouse where Jesus was, an the kings day worry cos it wor a Palace. They went in an knelt down by Jesus an gid him their gold, frankincense and myrhh.

Mary looked at the presents an said: “Thank yo, they’m smashin, but Oi’ll keep em till ee’s bigger, if yo doh moind.”

The kings took off their crowns and bowed.

Then they said: “Tarrah abit,” an went all the way back wum.

But they day goo back past Erod’s palace cos a angel ad told em what a awful bloke Erod was, an ow ee wanted to kill the little Jesus.

What Was That Name Again?

Do you know – or have you ever heard of – any of these names?

  • Lacey Green
  • Stanley Wrenthorpe
  • Rodney Stoke
  • Mavis Enderby
  • Cherry Willingham

Well, I propose a little quiz for those of you who don’t know them. Are these

a) Musicians
b) Fictional characters
c) Actors
d) Places
e) Ships 
f) Artists

What do you think? Have you made an educated guess? Here are some more names in the same category:

  • Compton Martin
  • Burton Joyce
  • Askham Richard
  • Lach Dennis
  • Thornton Curtis

Getting warmer? Can’t you just imagine the dulcet tones of Lacey Green and Cherry Willingham performing their duet at Covent Garden Opera House, or Rodney Stoke’s unforgettable interpretation of Hamlet with the RSC? Mavis Enderby must surely be the heroine of a tragic Edwardian novel and didn’t you see those impressive paintings by Stanley Wrenthorpe at the Tate Modern? You probably heard about the disastrous cruise a few years ago when the Burton Joyce ran aground.

Has that jogged your memory? Or have you already resorted to Google and Yahoo, or asked Jeeves? Well, maybe you need another clue to put you out of your misery. Here are some more:

  • Catherine de Barnes
  • Wentworth Woodhouse
  • Clifford Chambers
  • Bishop Norton

And if that hasn’t done it for you, these must:

  • John O’Groats
  • Ben Nevis
  • Juan les Pins
  • Alice Springs

Got it? Bishop Norton has lots of relatives – Brize, Chipping, Midsomer and Hook to name but a few. Perhaps I could – at a pinch – add Mable Thorpe and Ashby de la Zouch?

Most of these places are in England, two in Scotland, one in France and one in Australia. I’ve always been intrigued by the name of the village Catherine de Barnes, seen on motorway signs near Birmingham airport, and which sounds like a Jane Austen character.


Photo credit: Wikipedia

A few years ago I was amused when I drove past Rodney Stoke near Bath, Somerset. Then as I searched for long dead ancestors in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, up popped Stanley-cum-Wrenthorpe, Wentworth Woodhouse and Mavis Enderby. I reaiised that many villages include Christian names that don’t have “St.” in front of them and started looking out for them consciously.Rodney Stoke

I suppose you could say that Ben Nevis is cheating, as it’s a mountain and not a village or town, but check out any large-scale map of British counties showing villages and hamlets, and among the very picturesque sounding names you’ll probably find a whole lot more that sound like people. Let me know if you do.