The English language can be extremely precise and it gives us words with the exact description we are looking for. But every now and then we lack adjectives that make all the difference when we want a specific meaning.
It happened the other day when a Spanish friend asked about the English word for ‘caza’, meaning birds and other animals that are hunted for food. He was a little surprised to discover that the word is ‘game’, which he thinks of as something that happens on sports fields or video screens.
In Spanish there are two main words for game: ‘caza menor’ and ‘caza mayor’. The dictionary gives ‘caza menor’ as small game, a term taking in birds such as partridge and pheasant and animals such as rabbits and hares.
In Spanish ‘caza mayor’ covers animals such as goat and wild boar. But an English-Spanish dictionary gives ‘caza mayor’ as ‘big game’ — and that’s where we need a little more precision.
For most people ‘big game’ has connotations of hunting on safari and for animals in the elephant or lion range. Even although the hunting of these animals is now banned and condemned by most of us, the term ‘big game’ lives on in that original meaning. So ‘big game’ isn’t a good translation of ‘caza mayor’.
Spaniards frequently use two other divisions for ‘caza’ in writing and in speech: ‘caza de pluma’ and ‘caza de pelo’. These can be translated neatly into ‘feathered game’ and ‘furred game’ but these are not terms English hunters use in general conversation. I use ‘feathered game’ in culinary contexts, but not ‘furred game’.
Our word game originally meant sport or amusement and it was spelt ‘gammyn’ or ’gamyn’. In Anglo-Saxon it was ‘gamen’ or ‘gomen’. In Danish ‘gammen’ meant mirth or merriment and in Middle Swedish ‘gammen’ was joy.
Game later had many meanings including, in the 17th century, the proceeds of a robbery. Dickens used it in 1838 to mean a lark or source of amusement.
It has long been associated with prostitutes. It was a collective noun for prostitutes, especially in a brothel, from the late 17th to the early 19th centuries. Since the mid-19th century, ‘on the game’ has meant to be engaged in prostitution. In the 17th century, ‘gamester’ was a colloquial word for harlot but in the 18th and 19th century that had become a ‘game woman’.
However, a ‘game publican’ was not involved in prostitution: he was a dealer in stolen goods. A ‘game ship’ was a 19th century term and it meant a ship whose captain and officers accepted bribes for overlooking thefts from the cargo.
Game was also much used in colloquial sports terms. When a football team was so far behind in goals they couldn’t possibly win, the fans said “the game’s up”. But when the fans were saying “the game’s sewn up”, they were so far ahead they couldn’t possibly lose.
On the racecourse, it was sometimes said of horses that they were ‘as game as a pebble’, meaning courageous or with staying power. Off the sports field, to ‘play the game’ meant to behave like a gentleman.
In Australia, ‘game as Ned Kelly’ meant to be extremely brave, especially against heavy odds. Ned Kelly (pictured was the famous bushranger, an outlaw living in the bush, who managed to stay out of reach of the police for two years.
Spanish friends frequently ask me about words although sometimes they are not so much interested in their origins as in a simple explanation of the logic behind some aspects of English usage.
Queries often concern the abbreviations and contractions they come across in everyday words. Some, such as can’t and don’t, are straightforward and no one has any difficulty with them. But many people cannot understand why we say won’t for will not.
If can’t and don’t are logical, shouldn’t we be saying willn’t for will not? And it’s not just foreigners who don’t understand the won’t word. I asked a few English friends and they didn’t know why use won’t word. But there’s a simple explanation.
There was a time when we said wol instead of will and, therefore, won’t was the obvious contraction for wol not. Although wol was eventually dropped and everyone said will, the won’t contraction remained. Well, it does sound better than willn’t, doesn’t it.?
Lewis Carroll was an unusual writer in that he took these contractions a stage further. He believed that as can and not are both abridged, there should be two apostrophes. So he insisted on writing ca’n’t instead of can’t and he wrote sha’n’t for shall not. He also used wo’n’t but only for would not. However, in Alice in Wonderland he uses won’t and wo’n’t.
Two other abbreviations that can be perplexing are ie (for that is) and eg (meaning for example). But there’s no mystery because both come from Latin: ie is a contraction of ‘id est’, and eg is short for ‘exempli gratia’. Hundreds of years ago Latin was the language spoken by academics and scholars and it was mainly because of them that these and other Latin contractions remained in use. The others include etc (et cetera), pp (per procurasionem) meaning on behalf of, cc (copie carborundum) meaning carbon copy and ps (post script) for a short text added at the end of a letter. Like most people, when there were two post scripts I used to mark the second one as pps.
It wasn’t until I received a letter from poet Ruthven Todd, who used to live in Deyá and Galilea and had a remarkable knowledge of the language, that I learned the second post script (and any others) should be shortened to pss, for post scripts. I suppose that’s of mere academic interest because so few of us write letters nowadays.
English borrows foreign words and spells and pronounces them exactly as in the original language: rendezvous from French and schadenfreude from German, for instance. English is also unique in its use of Latin abbreviations.
Other nations, such as the Spanish, Germans and the French, use abbreviations in their own language. In Spanish, p.ej (por ejemplo) means for example, and the French equivalent is p.ex (par example). In German, zB (zum Beispiel) means for example. The abbreviations for pound (lb) and ounce (oz) also have most people scratching their heads in puzzlement. The letters lb come from the Latin word libra, the one pound unit of weight in ancient Rome.
At that time it was about 12 ounces but in the avoirdupois measure it became 16 ounces. Our word ounce comes from the early Italian onza, which is why oz is the abbreviation. In Middle English (Chaucer’s time) the word was unce.
Some people have difficulty in handling the difference of meaning between immoral and amoral. Some think there is only a slight difference and that both words are almost synonyms. But they have quite distinct meanings.
An immoral person is one who behaves in a depraved or corrupt way and shuns accepted moral principles. But an amoral person possesses no moral standards and is completely outside of morality. Immorality pertains to the breach of ethics and amorality to their absence.
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