My submarine is full of eels!

In the UK , this was a Bank Holiday weekend. We residents of course know exactly what that means, but to others in the world, whether native English speakers in North America, Australia, New Zealand etc. possibly not and to those who are speakers of English but for whom it is not their mother tongue, most definitely not. My european colleagues having just got over my use of the term annual leave when taking just a days holiday were perplexed when I started on about bank holidays!

So what is a bank holiday? Unlike just about any other country we in the uk don’t refer to national non working weekdays as public holidays, but as Bank Holidays. The term derived really from two sources…the holidays are of course days when banks and government offices are closed, but also back in 1871  John Lubbock first Baron of Avebury who was a scientific writer who studied ants and allegedly tried to teach his poodle to read. He however was also a banker and politician and he drafted the Bank Holiday Bill . This once it was law  created the original bank holidays.

We also very carefully schedule our bank holidays..a day off is much more useful if it can be on a Monday or a Friday and tagged on to make a long weekend. Hence the term Bank Holiday weekend..although ask a UK native about bank holiday weekends and they will usually mutter something about rain.

Uncannily many bank holidays seem to attract inclement weather and there is almost an expectation of it for our Late Summer Bank Holiday weekend, on the last Monday of August. Being a stoical nation, people will carry on as normal and still go to the beach and eat fish and chips or ice cream on the beach and then look miserable but resolute!

English is a congusing language, and we tend to use these idiosyncratic terms, desmite many of these never finding their way into a phrasebook. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Monty Python once did a sketch about a Hungarian Phrasebook that had ‘useful’ phrases for translation including “My submarine is full of eels”. Hmmm…and you thought Bank Holiday confusing!

That takes the biscuit….

I work for a German company and spend a lot of time conversing with German colleagues whose English is one thousand times better than my German!

In fact they are so fluent I sometimes forget it is not their native tongue…until I use some idiom that gets me puzzled looks.

I used the phrase ‘that takes the biscuit’ in a recent conversation and with dawning realisation I saw that this was causing some confusion. The etymological origins of this actually took me longer to explain than the whole original conversation so in this instance, using an idiom was not a good shortcut.

For those not in the know, its meaning is from 1800’s Naval times basically saying ‘well that takes the prize’ , and not necessarily for something good and  in reality probably something bad like running out of food and even using the last ships biscuit,  very much a last resort food item!

Anyway, I digress a little but still on biscuits………..

In the same way that choosing a coffee has become a university degree course,  and using the right name for a bread roll in different parts of the UK requires a phrase book (see my previous blog  ‘Please come to visit us’ on the joys of buying coffee and   choosing bread rolls in the uk…click on the  highlighted words to link..), the art of biscuit selection requires at least some higher level training to be completed before a simple purchase can be made. It is a complex subject….

As a child, based on my limited biscuit expertise (i.e. what darkened the door of our house and biscuit tin) I would have sworn in a court of law that only 4 types of biscuit ever actually existed in the world: namely rich tea, chocolate digestive,  regular (boring!) digestive and custard creams.

But now when asked to ‘pick up a packet of biscuits’ when at the supermarket can leave me totally overwhelmed. The range seems endless now….Balzen biscuits from Germany, Hobnobs, Jammy Dodgers , Penguins (no Penguins are harmed in the making of those biscuits…to reassure those of you from non Penguin biscuit countries)  and Chocolate Chip cookies. And don’t even go down the route of Wagon Wheels or Oreo biscuits (why are they a very strange colour and indeed  remind me of dog biscuits? ) or numerous others untasted and unknown in the array that will welcome me  in the supermarket.

And then of course there are Kit Kats……..

As a child I think they were seen more of being in the confectionery world but have now absconded to the biscuit aisle joining their new younger cousins Breakaways and Rocky Road. And then  I find some UK regional items have sneaked in.

Tunnocks Caramel wafers: as plentiful in Waitrose in Harrogate as in Aldi in Glasgow now. I think I have also seen them for sale  in the Middle East!

There are whole hierarchies of biscuits and their usage to be understood …everyday biscuits, luxury biscuits, speciality biscuits, biscuits only served with coffee, hand made, home made, Christmas biscuits and a whole lot of crossover products that are somewhere in the middle! Give a man inadequate instructions on the social standing of the occasion and it is guaranteed the purchase will be wrong one….

I realise for my non UK readers this is very UK centric but I suspect in your countries too the dilemma is the same!

And in the USA of course then there are biscuits that are in a whole new world of living on dinner plate…with gravy! My first ever visit to Georgia, USA has that experience etched on my mind.

But one final thought going back to second languages…the word biscuit is not an English word at all ….but derived from two French words ‘bis-cuit’..simply meaning twice cooked.

Vive la France!

Look forward to your comments.  Biscuit choice is of course a very subjective matter!

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Sox appeal

I perhaps need to start with an apology for English speakers in the UK, Ireland and probably most other places…but not in the America’s…as we in Europe don’t use the word sox as  plural of sock..and we only say socks, so this may grate a little on you…..sorry!

Anyway there is a whole list of words that don’t cross the pond very well….. so let’s just move on from that. And don’t even start me on the others…..

I digress…..a  short while ago I attended an expo in connection with my day job.
As is always the case for  any such event where suppliers want to lure customers to their stands to engage with them, there are the traditional give aways. Some of these are a sure fire winner…chocolate, usb  memory sticks, key rings, bottle openers etc. always attract .

Then there is also a plethora of giveaways that have become very passe…who really wants a cheap plastic pen? or a sticker saying I❤Higginbottam & Company,  Chartered Accountants? Unless of course you are Mr Higginbottam.

Even the good items like the chocolate get eaten, the bottle openers end up consigned to a kitchen drawer…so what does have a lasting effect?

Well it seems that not only does sex sell  but socks have the same effect. I went to an expo last week and was given a funky pair of socks on a supplier stand…so for them it is practical,  memorable,  and will certainly provide a memory trigger…far better than a PowerPoint presentation and a talking point that  was far from exciting. The socks are a great reminder …the  funkier the better!

So this time it seems, the marketing department have got it just right!

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Pineapple…well only if you speak English

As native English speakers we have it fairly easy travelling to most parts of the world. In just about any European country , English is taught from an early age in schools and is the language of music videos, much computer gaming , many movies and much, much more. Go to India and you will find it used as a link between speakers of different Indian languages .

So it’s rare that we don’t have any words of the native language ourselves and we struggle. It’s really only in some parts of South America and China where there are periods of radio silence and without Spanish or Portuguese for South America and Mandarin for China that we would really find it hard to find people to engage with.

Indeed most of these second language users never fail to surprise me with their linguistic depth and expertise that puts us to shame. Often we are asked questions to explain our own language….oh dear 😮

One of my former colleagues is no exception and challenged me on the english word pineapple.

It seems the word is ananas or something very similar is just about every European language including Spanish, French, Italian, Catalan, Portuguese and German you can think of …..but not us. I guess the word we used is very descriptive and had a stronger case for it rather than use a variant of others. I

But we are not the only etymological villains here. In French potatoes are pomme de terre (basically apples if the ground) But in Spanish the word us reassuring as it’s the much more familiar sounding ‘patatas, ‘ and likewise in Italian and very similarly ‘batata’ in Portuguese.

As is often said, there is far more in life that unites us rather than divides us!

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