U is for Underpass

U of Ottawa underpass
This underpass is a pedestrian walkway.

History of the letter U

The Phoenician letter waw (Y), or “hook”, was one of the most variable, undergoing many mutations as it was adopted by various languages and cultures. This letter was the sixth in the alphabet and the origin in Greek of the letters digamma (F) and upsilon (Y), and in Latin of F and V. The letters U, W, and Y were also derived from it. Thus, waw became both a consonant and a vowel.

In Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac, the letter waw came to be written in different ways, as a single stroke or a little circle.

In Latin, a stemless waw (V) was used for the letters U and W. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the lower case letter v began to be rounded sometimes into a u. The capital U became accepted in the 1700s, especially in France.

There is still confusion over the pronunciation and usage of the waw-derived letters, especially in English words borrowed from other languages.

Some U words

cunning

sum

udder

ultimate

underneath

uniform

unusual

upper

urgent

user

Exercises

  1. Define each word in the lists, “Some U Words.” Identify each as a noun, adjective, verb, or adverb. Use each word in a sentence.

Special reading assignment

  1. An underpass is the space under a bridge of some sort, allowing traffic to go through. A long underpass may be called a “subway”, distinct from subway meaning “underground” or “tube” rail transport systems.
  2. Pedestrian underpasses are built where heavy foot traffic needs to avoid a major thoroughfare.

 

Note: This blog post is an excerpt from a book, “English Manual: Letter by Letter,” to be published in 2017.

Q is for Quarry

Quarry; Open-pit mine
The marble quarry at Tatlock, Ontario, courtesy of Gary Sparkes.

History

The letter Q is derived from the Greek koppa and Semitic qoph. The original meaning of qoph is most likely a “cord of wool” and the original representation, a knot. Another suggestion is that Q represented the eye of a needle with a thread. A similar word in Arabic suggests that it might mean “nape” and represent the back of a head and nape of the neck. Yet another suggestion is that Q represents a monkey. I rather like that one.

Q is for quatrain and quintain

In poetry, a quatrain  is a four-line stanza and a quintain (or quintet) is a five-line stanza. These are usually part of a longer poem and may be variously rhymed.

There is something quieter than sleep

Within this inner room!

It wears a sprig upon its breast,

And will not tell its name.

— Emily Dickinson, from “Time and Eternity”

Exercises

  1. Write your own quatrain or quintain using at least one Q word. Which form is easier to write?

Special reading assignment

  1. The quintessential quiet in the quarter acre was accentuated by the murmur of quaking aspens.

 

S is for Sea Lion

Eumetopias jubatus
The book, “Animate Creation” is “Fully Illustrated with Scientific Accuracy.”

S is for Simple

Here is Dr. Holder’s version of “simple”. How would you put it?

In the present Volume, I have endeavored to carry out, on a more extended scale, the principle which has been partially indicated in several of my smaller works; namely, to present to the reader the outlines of zoologic knowledge in a form that shall be readily comprehended, while it is as intrinsically valuable as if it were couched in the most repellent vocabulary of conventional technicalities. In acting thus, an author must voluntarily abnegate the veneration which attaches itself to those who are the accredited possessors of abstruse learning, and must content himself with the satisfaction of having achieved the task which has been placed in his hands. In accordance with this principle, the technical language of scientific zoology has been carefully avoided, and English names have been employed wherever practicable in the place of Greek or Latin appellatives. 

–J.B.H.

From the Preface to “Mammalia,” volume I of Animate Creation; Popular Edition of “Our Living World,” a Natural History by the Rev. J. G. Wood, revised and adapted to American zoology by Joseph B. Holder, M.D., 1885.

 

Exercises

  1. Do you have trouble reading this passage? Try reading it out loud.
  2. How long is each sentence? Try to re-write the passage by breaking it into short sentences.
  3. Look up the words you don’t know. Are they now archaic or are they pedantic?
  4. Has the English language changed since 1885?
  5. Do you agree with what Dr. Holder is saying?

S is for Sharp, Shin, and Sigma

Long S
Cover page of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, published in 1667, photo courtesy of Wikipedia > Long S.

History of the letter S

The letter S originated with the Semitic letter shin, meaning “teeth” or “sharp”, perhaps inspired by the Egyptian hieroglyph for “tusk”. The symbol for shin looks somewhat like a W, with an upper dot or tittle to distinguish the s-sound from the sh-sound.

The Greeks turned the symbol on its side, to create the letter sigma (Σ, σ) for the s-sound.

Prior to 1500s, the lower-case letter s in Roman print was a “long s” similar to a lower-case f or a tusk. In medieval hand, the words look a little strange to us.

bleff = bless

bleffedneff = blessedness

When printing came into use after the mid-1400s, a rounded s was often placed at the end of words.

blefs = bless

bleffednefs = blessedness

To distinguish between the letters f and long s, the rounded s form that we know today began to be used everywhere, from the mid-1700s to early-1800s.

blessedness

The long s remained as a symbol for shillings in Britain, although it morphed into a slash.

£6/10 (six pounds, 10 shillings)

 

Note: This blog post is an excerpt from a book, “English Manual: Letter by Letter,” to be published in 2016.

L is for Lake

Lac Temiskamingue
Some old friends on a walk emerge onto the shore of Lake Temiskaming for a view of Devil’s Rock.

History and significance

The letter L is a consonant and is spelled ell or el. L is derived from the Greek lambda and Semitic lamedh. The original letter lamedh was a picture of an ox goad or a stick for driving oxen.

L is for Latin

Words of Latin derivation account for 29% of words in the Oxford English Dictionary and 15% of words in business usage. Many of these words came into the English language during the time that the Roman Empire dominated England, others came in from the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Latin and Latinized Greek came to be used to create binomial names for plants and animals under the Linnaean system of nomenclature. Some Latin words have entered English via French or Italian. Latin reveals itself in English most often as a prefix or suffix.

lactate, lactose [from Latin, lac, for “milk”]

levity, relieve [from Latin, levis, for “light”]

liberal, liberty [from Latin, liber, for “free”]

lunar, lunatic [from Latin, luna, for “moon”]

lupine [from Latin, lupus, for “wolf”]

Canis lupus (timber wolf)

L is for linguistics

Linguistics is the study of the structure of languages and the nature of human speech.

Special reading assignment

  1. Canada is lucky to have so many lakes as a source of fresh water for drinking and for recreation. Originally, these lakes and the connecting rivers acted as routes for exploration of the country.
  2. Lake Temiskaming, a part of the Ottawa River, is located in a rift valley. The cliffs at Devil’s Rock rise over 90 metres (300 feet) above the lake, which has a depth of 216 metres (over 700 feet). Be sure to wear your life jacket.

J is for Jams and Jellies

Preserves
Homemade jams and jellies found at a church sale.

History and significance of the letter J

The letter J is a consonant and, as the newest addition to the alphabet, one of the least used.

In English, the letter J is followed by a vowel.

English words do not end in the letter J. Words ending in a “dzh” sound are spelled with a g followed by an e to make a soft g or j sound.

edge, forge, fudge, sludge

Exceptions:

hadj [Arabic], raj [Hindi]

The letter J was originally used as a variation of the letter I, to create a distinctive ending to lower case Roman numerals, e.g., “xviij” for “18”. Other than that, classical Latin did not have a letter J until Latin scholars started to add them.

In 1524, the letter J began to be used as a distinct letter in Renaissance Italian and Middle High German. In English, too, the letter J became useful as new sounds entered the language, starting in 1634. Before that, for example, “JUSTICE” was written as “IVSTICE”. The vowel I, used as a consonant, came to be expressed as a J.

Other languages have adopted the letter J but pronounce it differently. Some languages, for example, modern Celtic, do not use J except in proper names.

Fun J words

jacaranda

jackanapes

jackrabbit

jawbreaker

jellyroll

jitterbug

jubilee

Jurassic

Special reading assignment

  1. A junction is a crossroad or intersection. A junction box is something else.
  2. The name of the first month of the year, January, is taken from the Roman Janus, a diety with two faces, one looking forward and the other back.
  3. The month of June is named after Roman goddess Juno, wife of Jupiter.
  4. The month of July is named after Roman emperor Julius Caesar (b. 100 BC; d. 44 BC).