Hi, hoi, hola, hej


Did you get here through LINGO? Be welcome, dear reader! Have a leisurely look around the blog, and be sure to check out the app.

Did you end up here without reading LINGO? Feel equally welcome. But if you’re even remotely interested in languages, do yourself a favour and get your hands on the book…

Feline lingerie

Winter_Lady_dressThe ways of etymology can be inscrutable. Who would think that the humble word panties has a proud, venerable origin?

No surprises in the first part of the journey back in time: panties is a diminutive of pants, itself a clipped form of pantaloons. Nowadays, this last word refers to trousers or shorts, but in the 17th and 18th centuries, it meant ‘tights’. English borrowed it from French (pantalon), which in turn had snatched it from Italian (pantalone). Continue reading

Esperanto whispers


Esperanto flag flying in Sweden

When a book gets media attention, however favourable, its author is bound to draw flak from some quarters. I’ve been lucky in that all the explosives and expletives slung at Lingo and me so far have come from the same direction: that of disgruntled Esperantists.

I don’t blame them. While Esperanto comes off easily compared to English, French, Italian and some other languages, I do poke a certain amount of fun at it. This irreverent attitude clashes with the idealism and missionary zeal of the activists among the Esperanto speakers. They feel that anyone questioning their language is an enemy of a noble cause. Against all odds, they keep alive the hope that Esperanto will one day become an auxiliary world language. I would have loved that to come true, I really would, but it hasn’t, and there are many political, economic and sociolinguistic reasons why it is extremely unlikely ever to happen. Continue reading

A hard-won flair

Me in Peru at the age of 22, busy learning Spanish

Me in Peru at the age of 22, busy learning Spanish

Several British journalists have asked with incredulity and a hint of admiration how come I ‘speak so many languages’. My standard response is that I don’t.

Don’t think this false modesty; it’s firmly grounded in fact. By sheer fluke, I grew up with two mother tongues, Dutch and Limburgish, the national and regional languages of my hometown. Studying English is compulsory in Dutch schools. Choosing German as a subject is wholly unremarkable, and the same with French. Since my school days, I’ve added only Spanish to the collection, severely damaging my French in the process. I don’t have the figures, but I’m pretty sure tens of thousands of Dutch people have a similar story. I’m just one of those who ‘speak a nice little word across the border’, the Dutch expression for being able to travel abroad and still talk to people. Continue reading

English spelling – a limerical review

The Lingo chapter about Scottish Gaelic is rather critical of Gaelic spelling. English, however, is worse. To illustrate the point, here’s a silly limmeric – sorry, limerick.

Up in Scotland, a sceptical Celt
Told his mates, ‘All my life, I have felt
That if Celt is with C
Kilt as well ought to be.
And I wonder why whiscy’s misspelt.’


My hellish hometown

Moenen and Mariken. Woodcut from 1518.

Moenen and Mariken.
Woodcut from 1518.

I’m not very superstitious, I’m even less religious and I’m not in the least Norwegian. Even so, if given the choice, I’d rather not live on Devil Street, Beelzebub Crescent or Satan Square. But surely such names don’t exist, you may say – and what has Norway to do with it anyway?

You’re right: as far as I’m aware (I haven’t googled for fear of spoiling my story) there are no such overtly diabolically named streets. But this morning, while delivering some books to buyers here in Amersfoort, I came across Moenenstraat (MOO-nen-straht, Moenen Street). Moenen is a character from the late medieval play Mariken van Nieumeghen. Calling him the bad guy in the story would be understating it: he’s no less than the devil himself, the prince of darkness, the monarch of hell, evil incarnate. Moenenstraat – some street to live on! Continue reading


You won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a reader and listener rather than an ever-alert observer. My world is made up mostly of words, with pictures a far second.

Yet even somebody like me can see that Lingo has the sort of graceful cover design that catches the eye and lifts the mood – I liked it as soon as I saw it. Still, what got me playing with it was, once more, the word, the letters, the fivefold repetition of l-i-n-g-o.

What was there to be made of these letters, I wondered? Largely Independent Non-Governmental Organisation? London International New Grammar Observatory? Lascivious, Indecent… stop right there. Or perhaps they could be re-arranged? Loing – that would the gerund of ‘lo (and behold)’. Gnoli – sounds like an Italian specialty. Login – … Hey, login!

Which resulted in:


The week as a rainbow

Int Colours Day bigWhat is it about days and colours that makes them such happy pairs? Journalists, marketers, idealists, they all love to give the days of the week a dab of paint: just google for Black Monday, Yellow Tuesday, Red Wednesday and Green or Purple Friday, and you’ll find all sorts of catastrophes, sales campaigns, football matches, environmental activism and gay solidarity.

Most of these are recent inventions, but others have long become household terms, in English or other languages. Here’s an incomplete list – feel free to add.

Blue Monday
Long before becoming a popular meme for a day in late January, claimed to be the gloomiest of the year, ‘blue Monday’ was already a well-known idiom in Dutch: blauwe maandag. Somebody who read philosophy ‘for a blue Monday’ studied it for a very short period and unsuccessfully. As for why a Monday and why blue, nobody is sure, though theories abound. Continue reading