musing over trivia
Examining some expressions, sayings and beliefs.
ONE of my lunchtime kaki (local lingo for “enthusiast, buddy, crony”) has an almost paranoid mistrust of food and drinks in general. He occasionally makes provocative pronouncements, I think, for the sheer hell of starting an argument. One example: “Coca Cola is corrosive. It can even dissolve a nail.” Not wanting to get into an argument – “You cannot win an argument,” so wrote Dale Carnegie in his book How To Win Friends And Influence People – I put two small nails into a glass of the beverage. It has been four months and the nails are still intact. No, this finding is not an endorsement for Coca Cola! It only cautions us not to accept without question what is said or written.
Cogitating over common expressions, sayings and beliefs can be entertaining, even edifying. Let me illustrate with a few examples.
Do mosquitoes bite?
Mosquitoes do not bite. They do not have mouth-parts for biting. Instead they have a proboscis which the female uses to pierce into mammals to get a blood meal to nourish their eggs. Note that only the females “bite”. (Incidentally, another creature, the female spider, eats its partner immediately after mating – and that is why the mosquito and the spider, amongst other animals, give rise to the saying that the female of the species is more deadly than the male!) More than being a nuisance, the mosquito, depending on genus and species, transmits diseases such as malaria and dengue. On a lighter note, I have made one observation: the mosquitoes in my house have no manners – they “bite” without first asking for permission!
Can a pond glow?
You may have heard an environmentalist saying that “that pond is so polluted that it glows in the dark”. In local lingo I ask, “Can or not?” A pond may hint of an occasional flare or flash of light in the night because of the probable sparking of marsh gas (i.e. methane,
What is an agitated female horse doing out in the open on a stormy night? which is produced naturally by the decomposition of vegetation under marshy conditions); or the pond may glitter owing to the presence of fireflies (which, more commonly, are associated with certain mangrove trees). A pond may undoubtedly gleam or glitter or glimmer or shimmer or sparkle when headlights of passing motorcars glance off its surface. But glow? No – except, perhaps, when the pond is polluted with radioactive sludge.
Hey, what have the above examples to do with English? None whatsoever. They are a consequence of “rambling without purpose” (pardon the redundancy). At this juncture, it is meet to change tack and revert to the MOE mode. Let us cogitate over a few examples to uncover some facets of the English language and its grammar.
In (the) light of …
For some time I had wondered why the above expression – which means “taking into account, considering” – is said or written both with and without the definite article. I then found that “in the light of” is the form used in British English, while “in light of” is the usage in American English ( Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 2010). Now I wonder why the expression is so worded (e.g. He rewrote the book in the light of further research) even though a non-concrete noun like “research” – unlike the sun, the moon, and the stars – does not emit or reflect light. Yet it can shed light (e.g. Further research shed light on her antagonism towards her adoptive parents). Go figure ...
Uncles and aunts
Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines uncle as “the brother of one’s father or mother or the husband of one’s aunt”, and aunt as “the sister of one’s father or mother or the wife of one’s uncle” and, informally, as “as an unrelated adult female friend of a child’s parents”. Among English-speaking people, the terms are used to address family members related as defined above – and, specifically with added names, as in Uncle Bob and Aunt (or Aunty) Mary. Outside the family circle, the terms are also used but in a limited way, for close adult friends of one’s parents.
In Malaysia, the usage is more interesting. Among the Malay community, uncle is pakcik (a blend of bapak kecil, “little father”), and aunt is makcik (a blend of emak kecil, “little mother”). With the addition of a name, the form of address is shortened to merely pak or mak, as in Pak Lah (short for Pakcik Abdullah) or MakTimah (short for Makcik Fatimah). The form of address becomes more intimate when the name of the relative is replaced by order of birth, e.g. PakLong (for uncle who is firstborn, sulong, in his generation), MakNgah (for aunt who is middleborn, tengah, in her generation), and MakSu (for aunt who is youngest, bongsu, in her generation).
Among the Chinese, the forms of address are even more elaborate. There are special terms used: (1) for an uncle on the father’s side (and for the corresponding aunt related by marriage to the uncle); (2) for an aunt on the father’s side (and for the corresponding uncle related by marriage to the aunt); (3) for an uncle on the mother’s side (and for the corresponding aunt related by marriage to the uncle); and (4) for an aunt on the mother’s side (and for the corresponding uncle related by marriage to the aunt). The terms become more specific when the type of relationship of uncle or aunt is further affixed with the order of his/her birth, e.g. No.2 Uncle on the mother’s side; and his wife, No.2 Aunt, married to No.2 Uncle on the mother’s side – and so on and so forth. The types of relationship become even more varied when said in the different Chinese dialects (Hokkien, Cantonese, etc.).
Phew! That took some musing! Anyway, we Malaysians – whether speaking in English or in one or other of the local languages (Malay, Chinese, Tamil, etc.) – use uncle or auntie as a polite way of addressing our elders, even though not related in any way. Hmmm, it’s our very own commendable custom – a Malaysian first?
Which is the starboard side?
The sides of a ship are known by the terms fore (the front part), aft (the rearmost part), port (the left side), and starboard (the right side, facing away from port side). I was wondering about the term starboard side? That would be the side facing the stars, i.e. facing upwards. I’m still wondering whether the ship must be tilted sideways to make such orientation possible.
Do djinns exist?
I was amused by a recent report ( New Sunday Times, Oct 10, page 8) on the capture of djinns. I reproduce the following excerpt: “... the ‘culprits’ (djinns) had been captured and imprisoned in special containers (by two bomoh) ... The bomoh said that the sealed containers would be thrown into the sea so that the djinns would not bother anyone again.” I have comments on the following: (1) djinn, alternatively spelt as jinn, meaning “an intelligent spirit, in Arabian and Muslim mythology, able to appear in human and animal form” ( Concise Oxford English Dictionary): a djinn is related to genie, which COED defines thus: “(in Arabian folklore) a jinn or spirit, especially one imprisoned within a bottle or oil lamp and capable of granting wishes when summoned”; (2) bomoh: this Malay word for a medicine man has not entered the English dictionary, so that it should properly be italicised but it is rightly used here as singular and plural like in its original language; and (3) imprisonment within container: the bomoh imprisoned the djinns in what looked like ordinary wide-mouthed glass jars with twist-on caps and cast them into the sea presumably to immobilise them.
How gullible are we? Do djinns exist? Would ordinary glass jars which are not vacuum-sealed not float in the sea, be buffeted by wind and storm, and break up on rocky shores to release the djinns? Would the liberated djinns then be able to wreak havoc and bring about the end of the world in 1912 (as predicted by the Mayan calendar)? [Note: I know – my mind has rambled too far!]
If there is a nightmare, there must be a daymare too? No. “Nightmare” is a compound of night in the usual sense and mare, not a female horse but an Old English word meaning “incubus” (an evil spirit in male form supposed to descend upon sleeping women to have sexual intercourse with them).
I think I have wondered enough for now, having wandered sufficiently far and wide to make my point. Readers may continue and indulge in their own reveries with examples of their own.
(According to Life of Nelson, Robert Southey.) Robert Burns (1759-1796) “Don’t let the awkward squad fire over me.” Nancy Astor (1879-1964) “Jakie, is it my birthday or am I dying?” To her son on her deathbed. John Le Mesurier (1912-1983) “It’s all been rather lovely.” Henry James (1843-1916) “Tell the boys to follow, to be faithful, to take me seriously.” John Sedgwick (1813-1864) “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Seconds later he was shot dead by sharpshooters at the battle of Spotsylvania in the American civil war. Kenneth Williams (1926-1988) “Oh, what’s the bloody point.” His last diary entry.
– © Guardian News & Media 2010