People have always loved to point out language mistakes perpetrated by their fellow humans. In a fun yet informative Ted Talk (link here), John Whorter reveals that judging others’ linguistic skills or lack therof was a popular pastime as far back as in Roman times. Amongst the commonest mistakes that come up when your search for “grammar mistakes” on Google are:

  • you’re vs. your
  • their vs. they’re vs. there
  • its and it’s
  • affect vs. effect
  • me vs. I
  • of vs. have (as in could have)
  • less vs. fewer

Or even:

  • wrong word usage

Additionally, you can find a plethora of youtube videos on the most common mistakes to avoid. Now, I’m not going to get into whether one is ever entitled to disparage other because of the way they speak for it is clear we ARE judged by others based on our expression.

Well, this post is more of a desperate manifesto than anything else. After years of reading and watching people correcting others’ and their own “grammar” mistakes, I would like to point out to them:

  1. grammar is roughly the study of the way words change and are put together in speech; it can also be understood as a set of rules we should follow to speak socially acceptable language in terms of syntax and morphology;
  2. spelling is how we arrange letters in writing to represents the sounds/words/sentences of a language;
  3. vocabulary/lexicon is the set of words we used to make up sentences;
  4. phonetics and phonology deal with pronunciation and the sound system, etc.

As a consequence, it is ridiculous to tell people who use irregardless instead of regardless thay they’re making a grammar mistake as it’s a lexical mistake. And writing “their at home” is not a grammar mistake either, just a spelling blunder, just like “you’re car is red” or “it lost it’s leaves” or even “let’s meet on the peer (pier)”. Even “I could of done” it is more of a spelling mistake as both “of” and “have” are pronounced [ə(v)] in their weak forms. I admit that some of those spelling failures might result from a syntactic misinterpretation of the words in question. However, when we talk about spelling homophones the wrong way, it does not mean a person cannot distinguish between “they’re” as in “they are” from “their” as in the possessive adjective. They may ignore the right forms to codify those two words or just choos the wrong spelling by mistake. Still, it is all about spelling as the sentence is phrased perfectly in terms of grammar.

Or maybe we should change the name of spelling contests to grammar bees?



So it’s been three months since I became a proud owner of pet rats. Although sometimes, as it is reported to happen with cats, it is probably the rats who own me – free ranging all day long and taking up a great deal of my home time. But this is not about me as a ratkeeper, this post is about how this new animal is seen in our Western cultures and how this image is represented in language.

Rat is a fairly new animal in here in Europe and so the etymology of the word is uncertain. The animal spread around Europe from the East (Asia) in the Middle Ages and is definitely here to stay. The first common species (Rattus Rattus) was largely replaced by the newcomer Rattus Norvegicus, which is also the species my ratties belogn to.

In both Romance and Germanic languages, the word seems to come from the same root (rat, Ratte, rata, etc.) of unknown origin. Some theories derive the words from an onomatopoeia representing the sound made by rats’ teeth; others link it with Indoeuropean words that resulted in rodere in Latin. Be that as it may, most researchers agree (e.g. OED) that the word spread from Germanic to Romance and not the other way around. Thus, the scientific Latin term Rattus is obviously a late formation based on modern day European languages not coined until recent taxonomy was created. Ancient Greek and Latin, for example, both lack terms to denote the animal although the old Indoeuropean term for a mouse is present in Latin (Lat. mus), Greek (Gr. mus), Germanic (Eng. mouse) and Slavic (Pol. mysz).

Let us then start analysing image of cuddly rats underlying modern phraseology by having a quick look at some English expressions. That the image of the animal is culturally conditioned is a fact as there are Asian cultures that worship rats under the form of gods. In Western European cultures, plague-carrying and sewer-inhabiting rats were less fortunate. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines  the metaphorical rat as a “contemptible person, an informer, a scab” (strike-breaker) or someone who spends too much time somewhere “a mall rat“, the latter probably related to the rats natural habitat (the sewer) that they only leave to steal human food. The Cambridge Dictionary is milder: “an unpleasant person who deceives or is not loyal”, while some entries on the Urban Dictionary are much less so describing a rat as “the lowest form of human being, a backstabbing snitch”. Obviously, there are more positive connotations, e.g. “rat-arsed” signifies the ecstatic state of being “shit-faced”. On the other hand “ratting (out) on someone” is betraying someone or giving secrets away and then ther’e the “rat race”. Additinally, things don’t look up if you consult a Spanish dictionary, where rats are stingy people.

So the poor beasts are fighting a losing battle. They’re probably doomed and shall forever be frowned upon.

I dedicate this to A&J.



Walter, H. (2003). L’étonnante historie des noms des mammifères. Paris: Robert Laffont. (online)

Cambridge English Dictionary (online)

Oxford English Dictionary (online)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online)

DRAE (online)



Again, Valentine’s Day is here and the topic of ‘ligar’ naturally comes up in class with Spanish students. ‘Ligar’, we must admit, is a broad concept that ranges from being flirtatious with someone to making sexual advances to actual intercourse. English tends to be more specific in this regard so one is obliged to specify what kind of activity one engages in exactly. Below are some options.

One of the typical uses of ‘ligar” – as in ‘salir a ligar’ – is to go to (a) bar(s) to chase after girls (cf. Beyonce’s If I were a boy)  or to pick up (girls/boys), which could also be going out on the pull in BrE. Pulling is another way of saying one managed to convince someone to have sexual intercourse with them, an action American speakers would call scoring. Yet before pulling, a series of steps must normally be taken: one can chat someone up or flirt with someone, hit on someone, come on to someone (from least to most courageous or intense). Two phrasal verbs are imperative here: one can make out with someone, which implies kissing, or even hook up with someone, which may mean anything more adventurous ranging from intercourse to (sic!) even a relationship. Complicated!

So, “ayer ligó” could really be anything: (s)he pulled, scored, flirted with someone, made out, hooked up with. Of course, there are other words in Spanish as well to denote all those shades of meaning (e.g. ‘enrollarse, liarse’, etc.) but let’s leave it for next year.

WOTW 10 01 2018: VAMOOSE

Today’s post will be a short one about a word I came across in a German-English dictionary and which distracted me from watching my German TV series for quite a while. The word in question is:

VAMOOSE /vəˈmu:s/

The meaning of this colloquial term seems to be “to leave or depart quickly”. It is American in origin and apparently comes from Spanish, as shown in the following entry from

“to decamp, be off,” 1834, from Spanish vamos “let us go,” from Latin vadamus, first person plural indicative of vadere “to go, to walk, go hastily,” from PIE root *wadh- (2) “to go” (source also of Old English wadan “to go,” Latin vadum “ford;” see wade (v.)).

I reckon it is not a common term as most Google books results are metalinguistic in nature and actually refer to the term itself (its meaning and origins) without illustrating its use in speech or writing. Yet there are 30 examples in COCA (although some of them are definitely proper names, not cited here):

Did he get stage fright and vamoose? ” asked Natalie.

It was so fearsome that I entertained hopes it might persuade the whale to vamoose.

Get out of here, all of you. Vamoose!

He simply shook his head at me. ” Vamoose,” he said. ” Vamoose?” ” Uh huh. “

The last example shows that even the interlocutor had problems understanding the word within the conversation. Still, a solid piece of language trivia.

And now, I must vamoose!

Winter reflection on soup

During wintertime we like to have stodgy, hearty and filling meals. Especially in hot countries, the summer is not the best time to eat hot meals which might contribute to a heat stroke, but it is normally wiser to go with something chilled, like gazpacho.

But now that winter has come, it’s time to enjoy some proper soups and stews, such as the typical Madrid stew (el cocido madrileño), fabada, a botillo or some good lentil soup. My question for today is how to distinguish between a soup and a stew. Is what we call sopa in Spanish the same as the English soup? Where do you draw the line between the two types of dishes? It may seem to be a petty issue to consider yet it has aroused my interest. The similarities between a soup and a stew are obvious: various ingredients cooked in water. The differences: there is normally more water in a soup; a soup has always got to be served in a bowl while thick stews may also be served on a plate and stews are often served as the main course while soup is normally a starter. Stews also normally take longer to cook.

At least this is what it’s like in English, but the Spanish seem to have a slightly different concept and their soup is normally creamy, while thicker dishes with stuff swimming in the liquid are considered stews or platos de cuchara (lit. ‘spoon dishes’) – a kind of borderline category. What does that mean in practice? For example, lentejas, which would quite often be called lentil soup in English, especially when fairly thin, is considered a type of stew that you, nevertheless, consume with a spoon.

But problems do not end there, as there also appears to be a little semantic clash in the meaning of soup in different English varieties (as reported here by Lynne Murphy, an American linguist living in Britain). To cut it short, and using congnitive semantics terminology, apart from the definition, the prototype of soup varies on both sides on the Atlantic. British people, apparently, are less likely to have chunks of food in their soup, meaning they have it are more liquid or puréed, while Americans typically want things floating in their bowl.

Come to think of how soup is perceived in Spain, I think it is more the British liquidised way. In my home country, Poland for the newcomers, on the other hand, the prototype resembles the American version with chunks of vegetables, meat and noodles or potatoes being clearly recognisable and the whole thing not blended. We call liquidised soups creams and although they fall into the soup category, it will normally be specified on the menu that what you will be having is vegetable cream (blended) or vegetable soup (with chunks).

Summing up, soup can have many faces. If you look at this version of patatas a la riojana (‘Rioja style potatoes’), I’d say they’re clearly a soup applying my Polish/American prototype, while for Spaniards/Brits this would be a stew (‘un guiso’). However, the plating of the same dish in this picture clearly calls for the word stew, so it is relative.

As a closing remark, an etymology note. While the word is Germanic in origin and has to do with “taking liquid” or soaking something (, it came to English, Spanish and Polish through Latin, the original Latin meaning being “bread soaked in broth”. Now if you look up the word sopa in the DRAE, you will see this original Latin meaning is preserved in Spanish (second definition: ‘Plato compuesto de rebanadas de pan empapadas en un líquidoalimenticio’; third definition: ‘Pedazo o rebanada de pan que se empapa en un líquido’ (mostly used in the plural)). It is probably not a widespread use but it did remind me of a TV show I watched a couple of months ago where an old lady was referring to pieces of bread to be soaked in soup as sopas (‘soups’).

Enjoy your winter meals!

Nik <3 Euskara. WORD OF THE WEEK 11 12 2017: Ergative

This week’s word comes as a kind of natural consequence of my weekend trip to the beautiful Basque Country. More specifically, the idea sprung to my mind after seeing this image:

Nik ❤️ Euskara.  Eng. I love Basque.

Basque belongs to the so called ERGATIVE languages, which means that rather than using the typically European NOMINATIVE-ACCUSATIVE distintion, whereby subjects are distniguished from objects (cf. Eng. he/him, Lat. rosa/rosam), the difference is between the ABSOLUTIVE case and the ERGATIVE.

In a nutshell, the absolutive is used to denote (1) the subjects of intransitive verbs and (2) the objects of transitive verbs, while the ergative is used to express the subject of a transitive verb. Ta-da!

In the example above, the clause is transitive because the verb love is transitive and used with an object, hence nik (I-ERG). With an intransitive verb, ni (I-ABS) would be used, e.g. Ni Madrilen bizi naiz. I live in Madrid. Additionally, ni (I-ABS) can also be an object, so zuk ni maite nauzu (Eng. you love me). It should have by now become apparent that –k is the ergative mark while the absolutive is unmarked. Not only pronouns can be marked for the ergative but also nouns and even proper names, so my own would be Mateusz+ek, which is quite funny since it is the diminutive form of my name in Polish.

But there is one final question about the slogan in the photograph; while it is obviously based on the I love NY kind of phrases, it also violates the basic rules of Basque syntax, where the verb should go at the end of the clause, i.e. SOV word order is preferred in simple statements as opposed to the SVO object in English, Spanish or Polish. In fact, when pronounced, it would be:

Nik euskara maite zaitut.

so maybe it should have been

Nik euskara ❤️

But then it wouldn’t evoke the traditional design with the heart placed in the middle of the sentence so easily.

(Jotted down on my phone.)

¿Qué significa ser “bilingüe”?

Esta vez una entrada en español inspirada, como a menudo, en mi experiencia personal/profesional. Viviendo en un país como España, con unas políticas lingüísticas bien desarrolladas no solo en las comunidades con lenguas cooficiales (como Cataluña, Galicia, el País Vasco, Navarra), uno se topa casi a diario con el término bilingüismo, bilingüe. Parece que todo el mundo se haya vuelto loco por convertirse en bilingües. Hay colegios “bilingües” cada dos por tres, los padres de los anuncios de la tele quieren que sus hijos sean “bilingües”, etc. Hay también personas que confunden el significado (vide infra) de la palabra bilingüe con la descripción de un nivel de competencia en una lengua, llegando incluso a referirse al nivel de su lengua materna como bilingüe (caso real de un español “bilingüe” en español, según él).

Obviamente, nada tiene de malo (=es deseable) querer aprender una segunda lengua o una lengua extranjera y hacerla suya (que es donde empieza la verdadera competencia bilingüe según el servidor), pero hay que ser consciente de la terminología que se emplea para describir los niveles de competencia en un idioma, pues bilingüe desgraciadamente no es uno de ellos.

No voy a entrar en un debate lingüístico pormenorizado acerca del bilingüismo, la diglosia, el bilingüismo simultáneo y consecutivo, pues en el fondo es un debate terminológico, teórico. Sin embargo, he de clarificar que para mí una persona bilingüe sigue siendo un hablante con dos lenguas adquiridas de forma natural durante la infancia y con una competencia o nivel comparable en ambas. Reconozco que casos de ese bilingüismo puro hay pocos, pero al haberlo interiorizado de esta manera, sigo sin considerarme bilingüe por muchas lenguas extranjeras que hable bien. Para mí, yo solamente hablo lenguas extranjeras, aunque a veces mi competencia en un aspecto de una lengua extranjera pueda ser mayor que en mi propia lengua, como es el caso del registro académico, por ejemplo. Y siguiendo la misma lógica, el bilingüismo como negocio dentro del área de la enseñanza no tiene ninguna razón de ser mercantil en una sociedad o en el caso de personas propiamente bilingües de “nacimiento”.

Miremos entonces las definiciones de la RAE del término bilingüe:

Del lat. bilinguis.

1. adj. Que habla dos lenguas. Apl. a pers., u. t. c. s.

2. adj. Escrito en dos lenguas. Discurso, revista bilingüe.

3. adj. Que ofrece palabras, expresiones o textos en una lengua y los traduce a otra. Glosario bilingüe.

4. adj. Dicho de un centro de enseñanza: Que imparte su educación en dos lenguas. Colegio, escuela bilingüe.

5. adj. Que se imparte en dos lenguas. Educación, enseñanza bilingüe.

A simple vista vemos que las acepciones 2-4 plantean pocos problemas, puesto que se refieren a objetos (libros, textos), lugares (colegios) o actividades (enseñanza) caracterizados por la presencia de dos idiomas. La primera acepción, sin embargo, aun teniendo una referencia personal clara, nos indica precisamente lo mismo: “la presencia de dos idiomas”. Claro está entonces que no puede referirse al nivel de conocimiento de una sola lengua. Pero ¿qué significa “hablar dos lenguas”? Un vendedor con un nivel intermedio bajo comunicándose y regateando con sus clientes en una lengua extranjera claramente habla dos lenguas; una persona con un nivel avanzado que imparte enseñanzas en una lengua extranjera, también; al igual que una persona de padres españoles criada en Francia que siempre ha hablado español en casa.

Hace años que se emplean términos mucho más específicos para referirse a los niveles de competencia lingüística en una lengua extranjera. Hemos pasado de los difuminados niveles elementales, intermedios y avanzados a una escala de seis A1-A2-B1-B2-C1-C2, sobre la cual mucho hay escrito e incluso yo perpetré una entrada en este mismo blog sobre uno de sus componentes. Puesto que todas las personas que pueden comunicar contenidos en una lengua extranjera pueden fácilmente adherirse a la primera acepción de la RAE (“hablan dos lenguas” por lo menos) bilingüe se nos presenta como una palabra muy vaga con una semántica borrosa y genérica. Por ende, decir “soy bilingüe en X” es como decir “hablo X” sin aportar más detalles. (Todos nos acordamos del famoso “nivel medio de inglés” que podría estar comprendido entre un A1 alto y un B2 bajo.)

En resumidas cuentas, uno no puede ser bilingüe en una lengua (sobre todo la suya propia), porque se es bilingüe cuando se habla dos lenguas. Uno puede tener un nivel más o menos avanzado, un nivel superior, un nivel B2 o C2, pero no un nivel bilingüe.

Además, a modo de una conclusión reflexiva, con eso del bilingüismo como el culmen de todo empeño lingüístico, ¿dónde queda el multilingüismo como un objetivo de la política lingüística europea? Parece que se nos haya olvidado que las políticas europeas oficiales  (publicadas en múltiples documentos estratégicos) procuran una Europa multilingüe donde cada habitante hable al menos tres lenguas: su lengua materna y dos lenguas extranjeras. Es lógico que, al menos a nivel pragmático, este respetable objetivo haya quedado relegado al segundo plano, con el inglés como la lengua franca internacional por excelencia tanto desde el punto de vista actual como histórico. Pero quizá no debamos olvidarlo del todo.

Word of the week 27 11 2017: what do you call bad-tempered people?

First of all, forgive me this series of negatively loaded terms but maybe there is something in it that reflects the way I like to look at the world. The inspiration for today’s word is actually a Spanish word, which you may try and guess if you know the language. The answer will be posted next week. A perfect day for autumntime I guess when people tend to have their emotional ups and downs, can get moody and ever quarrelsome. One of my favourite words, because, again, it sounds pretty much like it semantics.

CANTANKEROUS /kanˈtaŋk(ə)rəs/

Defined as: bad-tempered/ill-tempered, arguing, picking fights. Used mainly to talk about older people, but, to be fair, there are loads of young human beings behaving this way, too, so no one can feel offended. Still, the Cambridge Dictionary does justice to steretypes and cites the following example of usage:

“He’s getting a bit cantankerous in his old age”

This is actually confirmed by the collocates in the COCA; old and nature being the most popular ones basically means that old people are often cantankerous by nature, at least linguistically. Amongst the 291 instances in the COCA, we can find real gems such as the following:

  • “Or maybe she had thought in the year since he had been kicked in the head by a cantankerous milk cow that he had somehow become whole again.”
  • “And then Democrats seem to be less noisy and cantankerous when their own president does it.”
  • “She’s from Brooklyn. She’s Italian. She’s old and she’s cantankerous. And these are the sorts of things that bother her for some reason.”
  • “This musical comedy features a cantankerous troll, persnickety chickens and other characters.”


The end. So do you know which Spanish word I mentioned at the beginning?

Word of the week 20 11 2017: how to describe a mess?

The word I have chosen for this week will come in handy when describing messy and confusing situations. Part of its appeal probably lies in its pretty self-explanatory form, quite transparent etymology and alliteration.

TOPSY-TURVY /ˌtɒp.siˈtɜː.vi/

The Cambridge dictionary defines it as “(in a state of being) confused, not well organised, or giving importance to unexpected things”. Merriam-Webster is less elaborate – “in utter confusion or disorder” and both dictionaries provide “upside down” as a synonym. The latter is confirmed by its etymology; whereas the first component means “the highest part” (top), the second comes from a now obsolete English verb to terve meaning “to turn upside down”.

Some examples from the COCA.

  • but isn’t this kind of an upside down, topsy-turvy situation?
  • The topsy-turvy layout is an unknown to many of the players…
  • Yet even if things aren’t going to get topsy-turvy, you still need to buckle up.

It also collocates with words such as: world, everything (sic!), reality, industry, market, economy, logic and the verb turn (just like upside down).

I hope your week isn’t too topsy-turvy!


Word of the week 13 Nov 2017

“The night is dark and full of terrors”, if you know what I mean. Indeed, we all fear something and apparently psychologists/psychiatrists have been taking note of all the different nerve-wracking stuff that can haunt the human mind and so have come up with a series of interesting terms to describe phobias. This week, my favourite phobia term will become word of the day:


defined as: ‘a fear of or aversion to work’ (

There is an alternative term ergasiophobia but it is less common as illustrated by the following Google Ngram:

ergophobia pictureAnother interesting phobia is triskaidekaphobia ‘fear of number 13’. I’ve been making my students come up with definitions for this word for ages. Its etymology is quite transparent: Greek treis ‘three’ three and deka ‘ten’.

The etymology of ergophobia should be clear too to those who now the word ergonomics meaning the study of efficiency in the workplace, a coinage based on Greek ergon ‘work’ and economics (

Unfortunately, a brief glance at the COCA shows it is not a commonly used word, just a fancy psychological term, as demonstrated by Google books, where most instances come from psychology textbooks and are actually definitions:

  • “For example, you may hypothesise that ergophobia (fear of work) in psychology students increases throughout their courses.”
  • “ErgophobiaErgophobia, (derived from the Greek’ergon’ and ‘phobos’ (fear); also called ergasiophobia), is an abnormal and persistent fear (or phobia) of work (manual labor, nonmanual labour, etc) or finding employment.”

All that said, I still think it’s a term that may come in handy on a rainy afternoon when you really don’t feel like rolling out of bed and doing anything.

Have a good working week!