Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Un peu ronde, gironde

I was reading the second book of Mireille Guiliano about French women and their art of living for pleasure when I come across this expression: un peu ronde, translated by the author as a tad overweight. Usually, I like the way she translates French concepts into English (she was trained in one of the best translating schools in Paris and had a career as a translator for international institutions before moving into corporate world). But this time, I was quite uncomfortable with the tad overweight. It was correct by any account, but whereas I would happily and routinely describe myself as un peu ronde, I would never identify with the English phrasing: it implies that something is wrong. But then I thought, how would I say it in English? Probably, I would be happiest with a bit round, the calque from French. Curvy is not bad, although it describes the outline rather than the shape. Curvacious, voluptious, and even juicy are all correct, but they appear to be rather emotional and intimate.

In French, however, I once learned another great word. Several years ago at a conference in Spoleto , in a mixed French and Italian company, the conversation turned to the Italian word formosa, meaning shapely and beautiful. (We were discussing Roman statues, let me reassure you.) A professor from Brussels mentioned that there was a good old French equivalent, gironde. Its etymology is uncertain (I have checked), but I still remember the definition given by the professor. 'Gironde, he said, 'come Sophia Loren in tutto il suo splendore!'

Monday, May 28, 2007

Peu ou prou

Last Saturday, I went to the French Institute to listen to Philippe Thureau-Dangin, editor of Courrier international. I have been reading Courrier international for years: I like the concept, I like the broad international coverage, the way it presents different points of view, and even its use of advertisements. I really like the rubric Le livre, which introduces new authors and new books, often from places far away from obvious.

And I admire its use of French. The translations -- most of its articles are translated from articles in journals and magazines around the world -- are not only flawless and idiomatic, but often improve on the original in terms of clarity, logic, and conciseness, which are, in my opinion, the essential characteristics of a good writing. Once I compared several of its translations with English originals (all taken from reputable sources like the Guardian and the Independent) and could not but admit the superior skill of the CI journalists.

In real talk, the editor-in-chief did not disappont, and I who is always looking for new expressions, wrote down several. Peu ou prou was one of these. It means a little or a lot, more or less. Its unusual part prou originates, via old French, I learned, from the late Latin prode, meaning profitable. It is curious that the same Latin word resulted, again via old French, in proud in English. If Anglo-Saxon pride is something that makes you tick (not me), you can read about its carnival of the etymologies here.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Aller aux asperges

Of all the expressions Alicia de Galicia sent me two days ago, I particularly liked irse freír espárragos. I like asparagus, and am intrigued how such a innocent activity performed upon a delicious vegetable that we see only for a few brief months in a year has evolved to have a negative meaning. You can read a discussion of the expression and its English equivalents, some of which mention frying, here, but I found no explanation of its origin.

I decided to investigate asparagus-related expressions in other languages. It is the asparagus season, after all, and the foodbloggueuses du mondre entier (to borrow an expression from Sigrid) are busy cooking asparagus and posting recipes.

I did not find anything in English, but asparagus is a foreign vegetable in the UK. It surprised me that I could not find anything in Italian. Ancient Romans ate asparagus, and, according to Suetonius, the Emperor Augustus liked to use the phrase celerius quam asparagi cocuntur, it was sooner done than asparagus is cooked.

But it is in French where the asparagus, due to its shape, has found a fertile ground. Aller aux asperges is used pour désigner la prise de fonctions d'une péripatéticienne, or to quote a reputable dictionary, chercher fortune sur le trottoir. My main discovery was a French site called Echolalistes, listing various lists, including La Liste des Asperges, listing a plethora of asparagine expressions. It also directs you, if you prefer, to the lists of other vegetables, but for the time being, I will stick with asparagus.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Garden flat

I heard about euphemisms in English from my university teacher more than 15 years ago. She was doing research on their role in British culture, an important role, she said. She gave us some Classical examples, mostly used by the Victorian ladies. I have not forgot this discussion, but was never quite sure what she meant, apart from the obvious stereotypes about the Victorians.

It dawned on me this year, when I was looking for accommodation in London and had to deal with estate agents' newspeak. (After the HR, my second least favourite group of people.)

May I ask you what the words garden flat evoke for you? For me, they bring to mind greenery, space, luxury -- a flat overlooking the garden, that is. Oh no: in the London housing market, it denotes a basement flat embellished with flower pots in the windows or with flower pots down on the stairs.

It defies me why people in London enjoy living in the underground holes likes troglodytes, but it least I understand what my university teacher meant.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Spanish teacher

Alicia de Galicia is the organiser of the London Spanish meetup, one of the most popular in London.

She is a talented language teacher. Alicia is her real name, and, she says, 'soy de Galicia. So, I always say to my students Alicia de Galicia, and they never forget.'

She speaks beautiful Spanish, clear to be understood even by a timid beginner. At the same time, she manages to slip in idioms that can be appreciated and adopted by an advanced fan of Spanish, like myself.

The first time I met her, I learned de pura cepa, which means de souche, which in turns means indigenous, but there must be a better way to say it in English.

The second time I learned tiquismiquis, which she explained means quisquilloso, which means fussy.

And the third time I learned estar en pelotas, which means estar desnudo, to be naked.

I am looking forward to learn more of these idioms.


What I like about Alicia, is that she would always go an extra mile (I wonder how you say it in Spanish) to teach you something new about her language. When I told her aboout this post, she sent me the the following email:

Y como sé que te gusta y aprecias el aprender nuevas expresiones aquí van tres más: (1) salir de Guatemala y entrar en 'Guatepeor' ... salir de una situación mala para meterse en otra peor (2) enrollarse como una persiana... equivalente a 'hablar por los codos' (cosa que yo hago a menudo) (3) mandar a alguien a freír espárragos... equivalente a decirle a alguien que se pierda, que se vaya a paseo, y a decir a alguien 'vete a la porra'.

!Muchas gracias, Alicia de Galicia!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

HR Latin

Penelope Trunk of the Brazen Careerist posted recently about the use and abuse of jargon at the workplace.

Penelope's blog is great. Is is full of good advice. Much of it is common sense, which is also good. It is useful to be reminded about basic values in difficult times.

There seems to be one category of people who often disagree with her, judging by comments. This category is the HR. (This is another reason I am so fond of Penelope. The HR have never been my best friends.) If the purpose of jargon is to obscure the meaning, the HR master this technique to perfection. They seem to be incapable of writing a job description so that potential candidates can understand what the role is about.

Recently, I have noticed a new development: the HR have embraced Latin. 'The position requires acumen or gravitas.' 'The onus is on a candidate to provide the right details.' 'An excellent salary & package is on offer here, including the kudos of joining a growing upstart business that is garnering quite a reputation.'

The words come straight from a Latin dictionary: you can check in Lewis and Short, one of the best available on-line. I surely remember reading them in Horace when I was at the university. However, I have never ever heard these words from any manager, middle or senior.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Elias Canetti und ich

Elias Canetti was born in 1905 in Ruse, on the shores of the Black Sea.
I was born in 1970 in Riga, on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

When Canetti was little, he spoke Ladino (at home), Bulgarian (in Ruse), English (in the UK where his parents lived for a while), and French (he learned it at school).
When I was little, I spoke Russian (at home). I then began speaking Latvian (as I went to ballet classes). I was forced to learn English (at school, where it was taught with a pronounced Russian accent I still cannot get rid of and where I was repeatedly told I was no good at it).

By the time Canetti went to University, German became his language of choice. He wrote all his books in German and received the Nobel Prize for it.

By the time I went to University, I had heard so much German at home, spoken by my mother when she did not want me to understand the conversation, that I decided to learn it. After spending a week with a grammar primer and doing der die das, I decided it was die hoechste Zeit to read a book. I chose Goethe's Faust. My mother refused to cooperate.

Many years later, I still remember the opening lines by heart. I have read many books in German -- although none by Canetti, but I have never learned the language properly.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Hands down

Sometimes, in a flow of familiar words and expressions, you hear something new, something you are sure you have never heard before, yet something so appropriate, so fitting, that, after marvelling for a while at the beauty of the word, you immediately adopt it.

Last week, I was listening to Dick Fleming, one of the most seasoned interpreters working for the European Commission, interpreting a conference about interpreting. He was interpreting from German, a language which I understand enough to get the main idea and to appreciate the main structures, but not enough to follow a complex argument.

The speaker was describing main qualities necessary to train the aspiring interpreters and also to train the trainers of these aspiring interpreters (which is known as training of trainers). These qualities are not the same, the argument went, that you need to do philology, literature, linguistics, and other related subjects. For example, the trainers in Central and Eastern European Universities are often much better prepared and far more advanced in these purely theoretical subjects, the speaker said in three or so German sentences.

'In linguistics', interpreted Dick into English, 'they beat us hands down.' I had never heard the expression before, but the meaning was obvious: easily, without efforts. Of course, later I asked Dick about the expression and also looked it up in my biggest English dictionary. Hands down comes from horse racing, as you will find in the Mavens' Word of the Day.

They say that a good interpretation improves the original, and it was exactly what Dick's did. It was short, elegant, to the point. And, as they say it in German, it was der passende Ausdruck.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Language learning no luxury?

On Tuesday, I attended a discussion at the British Academy on language learning in British schools and universities, or rather, on the decline thereof, Language Learning No Luxury.

The decline has been dramatic, indeed: Dick Hudson, one of the panellists, presented a series of slides illustrating the falling interest in languages at all levels, from secondary schools to the higher education and research institutions. He and other speakers gave a plethora of reasons for this decline: boring curriculum, bad teachers, wrong methodology, lack of funding, elitist perception etc etc.

But what about mere usefulness? How useful are language skills in the business world? Or, to put it the other way around, what kind of jobs requiring language skills are advertised?

A quick Internet search of the top London recruitment agencies specialising, as they proudly put it, in multilingual recruitment, yielded the following results. The most frequently required positions with languages are PA and (tele)sales!

Hardly a rewarding career for a graduate.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Bronze horsemen

I am an avid reader of The Economist: I like that I can fit its reading into my schedule on a weekly basis, I like its topics, sections, and special reports, and most of all I like its mastery of English. (No, I do not work for the journal. Yes, I would not mind receiving an offer).

In particularly, its artistry of titles has long been an object of my admiration. Last week, I was reading an article about recent events in the neighbouring Estonia. It is called Bronze Meddling and the title works on several levels.

Phonetically, bronze meddling echoes bronze melting, which reflects the topic of the article, melting down or removing former Soviet monuments. Etymologically, English meddle derives ultimately from Latin miscere, to mix, thus juxtaposing mixing (of metals) and interfering (into internal affairs).

Historically, for all of us who come from the space where Russian has been lingua franca, bronze brings to mind the Bronze Horseman, a monument in St.Petersburg to Peter the Great and an eponymous poem by Alexander Pushkin about the tzar and his 'window into Europe'. It was Peter the Great who first added Baltic territories to the Russian empire. All the subsequent colonising powers left behind their statues and monuments, landmarks still too loaded emotionally for both sides of the conflict.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Me Tarzan you Jane

I have a friend whom I have known for ages, and he has been looking for a wife all this time. He is pretty determined about it, too: to say, he had embraced the art of on-line dating at the time when the rest of us were struggling with our first emails, managed by pine. And, I must say, he has had an amazing array of candidates, which is not surprising, given his charms, talents, and good looks. He is still unmarried, though, and the problem is: he has high standards.

The bride-to-be should come from the same city (which makes sense), she should be blonde (de gustibus non disputandum), younger than he (a bit old-fashioned but fine), and be approved by his mother as well (utterly ridiculous, if you ask me.)

She should also have good grammar. 'Can you just imagine, he would complain to me about a new candidate, she cannot spell? She just wrote 'restaurant' without a 't'?!' This one, I used to laugh about: if you like the girl, does it matter that her grammar is shaky?

Here in London, I am not so sure any longer. 'I have been living in London for 2 years but I haven't got improve my English. I would like to meet people, practice English, and enjoy with them', an anonymous admirer wrote to me. 'I would like to get to know you better and share a bit about our cultures, dancing and languages together', wrote another. 'If you are interesting you can write me.'

Yes, I can surely write you off and suggest you enjoy with an English dictionary.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Bilingual cities

Tomorrow, I am going to Bruxelles, and I am feeling slightly apprehensive, which happens every time when I am in a bilingual city. Which language should I address the locals, if need be?

Sometimes, like in Brussels and Barcelona, I have no choice. I speak only one language of the two, and apologetically try to convey the message 'excuse me, I am not from here, and unfortunately do not speak your tongue, of course I would learn it if I lived here, but for now, shall we communicate in French or Spanish, or indeed in any language of your choice'.

In other cases, like in Riga, I speak both languages on offer, and then I try guessing which would be the preferred medium of my interlocutor. The message here is 'excuse me I really do not mind which language to speak, please tell me what you prefer and I would be happy to oblige.'

I often wonder whether other people feel the same and whether there is any correlation between the availability of two languages and the unwillingness to talk to strangers beyond the mere necessity, which is a sad characteristic of my home city.

Monday, May 07, 2007


'So, where does your accent come from?' The question would pop up inevitably in any conversation I conduct in English, even now.

When I first came to the UK , I used to be ashamed about my accent and rather upset that I could not manage to get rid of it. And I tried. I asked for advice. One friend said 'Just try talking without opening your mouth'. Another said 'What is wrong with your accent, I understand you perfectly all right'. But it was not what I wanted. I wanted to sound - if not exactly like the HM the Queen, but at least in a way that would not discredit what I was saying. Also, I disliked that I could be pigeon-holed based on my oh-so-foreign accent.

Until one day, an acquaintance said to me 'I like it that you have decided to keep your accent'. 'I beg you pardon?' I said. 'Well, with your linguistics skills, surely you could speak without any accent, if you want, he said. 'I like that you keep it as a part of your identity'.

And this it was. Ten years on, I still speak English with an accent -- but I do it by choice. Besides, and this is something I always knew, foreign accents are sooo sexy!