Names and etymology have always fascinated me.
In primary school one of my hobbies was to read the telephone directory literally from cover to cover and read the names of all the exchanges and the alphabetical lists of people living in each one. Sometimes I used to count the number of people with a certain surname, or the total number of people in the smaller exchange areas. Although unfathomable to explain to anyone in a clear way that doesn’t come off as oddball, I found this entertaining at the time.
During my high school years I took one of my usual longish afternoon walks to a new area of town and came across a street I hadn’t noticed before. I was amused to find a sign identifying it as Kitten Crescent. I looked in vain in the area for signs of Puppy Avenue, Lamb Lane, Cub Crescent or Duckling Drive. Consulting the ever faithful telephone directory I found there were several people listed who lived in the delightful fairy tale street named Kitten Crescent.
A month or two later the local newspaper informed its readers that the spelling was a mistake and the street was meant to honour a certain (not very well known) Reverend Kitton. Apparently some of the residents felt embarrassed to be staying in a street named after the offspring of a cat. The street signs were rectified, which left me somewhat disappointed as Kitten is more interesting.
This reminded me of my childhood ideas that Kidd’s Beach had been named because it was a paradise for children, and that it was unlikely to ever rain on a Sunday. Oddly enough, I never expected only fried food on a Friday.
Etymology is interesting and helps us to understand otherwise mysterious things such as why the word “Mayday” is used by sailors or aircraft in distress until learning that it comes from the French m’aidez and nothing to do with Worker’s Day or the May Queen. Likewise the expression of love in tennis has nothing to do with courting despite playing on courts, but is from the resemblance of zero to an egg, in French l’ouef, which has corrupted to “love”. And saying an informal goodbye has nothing to do with food, but is spelt Ciao.
Yet another factor that occasionally leads to misunderstanding is when the same word can mean totally different things to different people. This is especially seen when a word appears out of context. Take the simple English word ewe. (A sheep, a sheep, a female sheep…) This means two completely different things in at least two other commonly used official South African languages. The way they’re pronounced is also totally different in the three languages. (meaning Yes in Xhosa; pronounced like air followed by we as in “wet”; and in Afrikaans it would be ear followed by a quick ve or vi like the British pronunciation of “vista” or “vitamin”). The closest translation for this word is just as or equally.
The Americans, of course, have vitamins in accord with vice and Violet, and ants (female relatives) who drop vases that rhyme with razors.
I’ve occasionally seen the single word Bye on a little handwritten sign with a cell number in a predominantly Afrikaans part of the country. This doesn’t mean the person is saying farewell to everyone and embarking on a world cruise, but is advertizing the fact that he handles bees and can remove them for you.
We can clearly see how intricate language is. It’s an enduring passion of mine to study words and names. I have a smattering of vocabulary from various foreign languages but not enough to converse in them, because I could never zoom in on a particular language and devote all my attention to the specifics and the grammar. I can read Dutch because of its similarity to our local Afrikaans language, and understand a little of French, German and Italian in written format, but not a great deal more.
Names can be just as fascinating as words. Behindthename.com is just one of a number of fascinating websites devoted to explaining the meanings and etymology of thousands of names, including ones that are not generally used for babies for rather obvious reasons. There are plenty of examples here of names with different origins. For instance, Demon is a boy’s name listed as rhyming with lemon and comes from the Greek “demos” – “of the people” from whence we get the word democracy and has nothing to do with a malevolent spirit that wants to grab your soul and drag it into a pit. But many people meeting a little boy names Demon would think his folks must be evil puppy slayers, simply because they are unaware of how words mean different things!
To conclude, and demonstrate that what’s fine in London might not work when you’re in Lagos, here are some examples of things that are fine in the languages of the countries where they’re marketed, but won’t sell well to an English speaker:
Lost your appetite,tourists?