I have enjoyed very much dipping in and out of Mark Forsyth’s (of The Inky Fool) excellent book “The Horologicon” if you have an interest in obscure and dead terms I advise you to pick up a copy. Over the course of this week it has taught me many new and I must say fascinating words, which although I may not drop into normal conversations it is a pleasure to learn something new. I also have one class of students who like it when I give them three unusual words each week, this book has been kind enough to furnish me with several of them.
As I was cooking a nice piece of salmon this week it massively splattered oil over my trousers as I turned it over, leaving a rather unsightly grease stain just above the knee, which in spite of several washing attempts it stubbornly refused to be removed, it just wouldn’t wash away. It was unwashawayable or to take a term from page 26 of this book, it was illutible. It is really surprising that more words exist to cover situations than perhaps we even knew existed.
I thought it might be fun to have a regular entry based on the things I learn each week. A kind of personal record of things that I find interesting that I never knew before.It has been an ambition of mine to try and learn something new each day, sometimes I succeed sometimes not but over the course of one week I will definitely learn new things and either I will choose one or a small selection and post it here.
This weeks choice came about through reading a book on classical mythology. I learned that our word myth actually comes from the Greek word mythos which I suppose is no real surprise especially as very often when we use the term myth or mythology it is preceded by the word Greek.
What interested me was the plethora of meanings the word mythos covers including but not limited to fiction, saying, tale, word, story and perhaps most interesting of all, fact. It seems ironic to me that a word we equate with fiction also meant fact. I am curious as to how one word can have two meanings which are directly opposed to each other. Imagine the confusion it must have caused in the amphitheatres of the ancient Greek states.
There is a mythos about a Greek tragedian called Aeschylus who died around 456 or 455 BC from being hit by a tortoise which in turn had been dropped by an eagle who had mistaken Aeschylus’ bald head for a rock on which to crack open the tortoise shell in order to consume it. A strange story and a somewhat ironic end to a tragedian, but the main question for me is whether this mythos is 100% mythos or just plain old mythos.
As I have mentioned before I live and work in the Czech Republic. One of the biggest challenges of living here is the Czech language, which after four years I am still very far from competency. Many Czech words look completely alien to me and very unpronounceable however some words are the same or almost the same as they are in English, either letter for letter or just adapted to fit with Czech pronunciation.
One such word is víkend which as you probably guessed means weekend. I started to wonder why this word appears to come from English and why there wasn’t a Czech word for weekend. Like so many questions I have with this most challenging of languages I ask my students to see what they know. No one I asked could tell me a Czech alternative to víkend (weekend). However a couple of them point out that historically of course there was no weekend most people would have worked on Saturday with only Sunday off for religious reasons. This is nicely illustrated in the Czech word for Sunday, Neděle which I believe literally means ‘to do nothing’.
So was the concept of weekend an Anglo centric idea? I have to say I do not know but it certainly appears that way. Many other languages also seem to adopt the English word. Even French which does have its own phrase fin de semaine seems at times to prefer le weekend.
I can only deduce that Czechs only started taking weekends sometime after the establishment of the first republic and after the phrase had been coined in English speaking countries.
It is funny the things we sometimes ponder, absolutely useless information but I am glad I know a little bit more than I did before I asked the question.