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Moving forward - and backward - with the English language

By Jim Regancsmonitor.com / January 11, 2006



HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA

English is a language most wondrous and strange - from its size, flexibility, and adaptability, to its decidedly mixed heritage and continued interbreeding with other tongues. A language where "phonetic" isn't spelled phonetically, where flammable and inflammable mean the same thing, but cleave and cleave mean opposite things. A language where there is a place for the sentence, "I'll set the set on the set so after the sun sets on the fifth set we'll be all set to set things in motion." (Granted, it might make sense only if you were challenged to a game of chess after watching the Men's Wimbledon finals on TV, but given the 464 definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary, it's not too difficult to find multiple "sets" in more commonplace conversation as well.) Naturally, no single site could ever do full justice to the English language, but this week's selections provide a few suggested starting points, for anyone interested in the curiosities and trivialities of "English as she is spoke."

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Which brings us, without the slightest pretense of coincidence, to the week's first stop - and a unique view of the language from the outside. "English as She Is Spoke" was a late 19th-century English phrase book written by Portuguese writer Pedro Carolino - who, rather than use a Portuguese-English dictionary, took the more scenic route of translating - in stages - through Portuguese-French and French-English reference books. The result is almost certainly the worst phrase book ever written - with 'indispensable' Phrases like, "He burns one's self the brains" and "I have put my stockings outward," as well as such famous Idiotisms and Proverbs as "Keep the chestnut of the fire with the cat foot," and "Burn the politeness." (Not to mention a collection of brain-burning Anecdotes.) "English As She Is Spoke" is still in print, and has given its author a degree of immortality that few other translators could ever aspire to.

Lest we be too hard on Carolino, we should keep in mind the size and complexity of a language that boasts roughly 200,000 words, a quarter of which are considered 'obsolete.' But obsolescence can have charms of its own, and if reviving the antiquated appeals to you, or you wish to simply add some obscurity to your daily vocabulary , The Phrontistery offers more than 15,000 suggestions to add a doctiloquent flavor to your conversations.

Though the obscurity of some entries (eg. halitosis, Beatlemania) might be debated, there is much of the unfamiliar and forgotten here. As flattering as it may be to compare your one true love to an amaranth, you'll probably have to explain what it is first.

In addition to having an alphabetical listing of the collection, The Phrontistery includes an introduction to Lipograms (literary works that deliberately omit one letter of the alphabet), recommended links, and a selection subject-specific Glossaries - so the next time you find yourself trapped in debate about, oh say, philosophy or dance, you'll be able to use trade-isms and fandangos with the best of them. (An even larger assortment of specialized vocabularies can be found through The Glossarist - a Yahoo-style portal to word collections all over the Web.)

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