[Repost] Of Cabbages and Kings: five ways to talk about translation (on Oxford Dictionaries)

Of Cabbages and Kings: five ways to talk about translation


King Alfred

Translation has been a crucial part of Anglophone culture from its very beginnings. The earliest English writers knew that the state of learning in England, with knowledge of Latin far from universal, meant a need for translations. Everything necessary for a rounded education was written in Latin, and so King Alfred the Great introduced a programme of translating “certain books, which are most needful for all men to know, into that language that we all can understand”. Alfred’s list of necessary books was very specific, and encompassed classics of theology and philosophy, rather than the Greek and Roman classics which were to torture school boys nearly a millennium later. These poor beleaguered boys, struggling with their Homer and Virgil, would often use a crib, a translation that provided them with illegitimate help in their studies. This might also be called a cabbage in the school slang of the nineteenth century; nobody’s sure where the term comes from, though it might be that the strips of paper looked like strips of cloth which tailors rolled up into shapes resembling cabbages (etymologies can be a bit labyrinthine at times!).

Like most linguistic concepts, translation has been described using a wide range of words. Here are some notes on five of my favourites.


Let’s start with the basics! The verb translate goes back to at least the early thirteen hundreds, when the author of the religious poem Cursor Mundi tells his readers that:

Þis ilk bok es translate into Inglis tong

to rede for the love of Inglis lede,

(This book is translated into the English language as advice, for the love of the English people.)

Translation was an important art in the medieval period, perhaps even more so than in King Alfred’s day, since the people of England now had to deal with both Latin and Norman French as commonly-used languages as well as the English vernacular. The verb comes from the Latin translatus, the past participle of transferre, meaning “to transfer”, hence the use of translate to refer to physical transferral. It‘s often used to describe the moving of a saint’s remains to a new resting place.


The mythic first poem in English, Caedmon’s Hymn, was a paraphrase. Legend has it that Caedmon, a simple cowherd in the monastery at Whitby, was visited by an angel who inspired him to compose poems on scriptural themes. The Latin scripture would be read to him, and he would produce beautiful paraphrases in the intricate Old English verse form. The verbparaphrase, however, comes a long time after Caedmon: the Oxford English Dictionary’s first evidence is from 1593 (the noun is attested a little earlier). It comes, via French and Latin, from a Greek root: para (“alongside”) and phrasis (“diction, speech”). So, whereas to translate is to transfer from one language to the other, to paraphrase is to speak in the new language alongside the original.


The delightful verb Englify was first used, according to the OED’s evidence, in 1688, when the writer Randle Holme referred to “a Welsh name Englified”. It is one of a set of words describing translation into English. Englishizeappears around a hundred years later, not long after anglicize was first used in this sense (in 1711 according to current research), whereas the simple verb English is the earliest of the trio, first appearing in the Wycliffite translation of the Bible in the 1400s: “I Englishe it thus”, the translator tells us. Other language names have been used in the same way: in 1868, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that “We clothe the nude word by Frenching it”, andFrenchize has also been used for translation into French.


Coming from the Latin traducere, meaning “to bring across” or “to transfer”,traduce was used to mean “translate” from at least the fifteen hundreds, and was still in use when Charles Kingsley wrote his novel Alton Locke in 1850: the title character will be allowed no more books to read “If ye canna traduce to me a page o’ Virgil”, so the Scotsman Sandy Mackaye threatens him. The verb is related to words for “translation” in a number of Romance languages: French traduction and Italian traduzzione, for example. The more common sense of traduce now is to slander or disgrace a person. It seems a bit of a leap from “transfer” to “slander”, but the classical Latin traducere could also mean “to lead along (as a spectacle)”, as one might do to a criminal, and in later Latin it carried the sense “to lead astray”, “to corrupt”, and “to blame”. It’s a verb of many talents, and it seems quite fitting that a word for translation should itself have such a variety of possible translations.


This is my favourite translation verb, and the oldest of our five. Indeed, this meaning of the word seems to have died out in the twelve hundreds, remembered now only by students of Old English who read King Alfred’s accounts of his efforts at translation: “Ða ongan ic..ða boc wendan on Englisc”; “Then I began to translate that book into English”. The range of meanings that wend had even in those days tells us something about how the Anglo-Saxons thought about translation. It could mean altering your course, changing your mind, travelling, or taking the final journey of death. Translation was a slippery thing, and it could fatally change the meaning of the original text unless great care was taken by a skilful translator.

These are just a few of the many verbs that are or have been used for translation; there was no space to talk about convertrenderinterpret, orthrow, to name just a few. Dub also lost out in my list of five, though it has the neatest etymology, being a simple shortening of the word double. So there is still plenty to explore in the world of translation; but, for now, I shall wend my way.

Cf. original: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/10/five-ways-to-talk-about-translation/#.U117FOTRzCU.twitter (previously shared by TransGALAtor)

[Repost] Word histories: conscious uncoupling (by Simon Thomas)

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Word histories: conscious uncoupling


 Simon Thomas blogs at Stuck-in-a-Book.co.uk

Published4 April 2014


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Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin (better known as an Oscar-winning actress and the Grammy-winning lead singer of Coldplay respectively) recently announced that they would be separating. While the news of any separation is sad, we can’t deny that the report also carried some linguistic interest. In the announcement, on Paltrow’s lifestyle site Goop, the pair described the end of their marriage as a ‘conscious uncoupling’. So… what does that mean?

The phrase was picked up by journalists, commentators, and tweeters around the world. Some called it pretentious, some thought it wise, others simply didn’t know what was going on. Let’s have a look into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and see what we can learn about these words.

Conscious is perhaps the less controversial word of the pair. A look through the Oxford Thesaurus of English brings up adjectives like awaredeliberate,intentional, and considered. But did you know that the earliest recorded use ofconscious related only to misdeeds? The OED currently dates the word to 1573, with the definition ‘having awareness of one’s own wrongdoing, affected by a feeling of guilt’. This sense is now confined to literary contexts, but it was only a few decades before the general sense ‘having knowledge or awareness; able to perceive or experience something’ became common. The idea of it being used as an adjective referring to a deliberate action came later, in 1726, according to the OED’s current research.

The verb uncouple has an intriguing history. The current earliest evidence in the OED dates to the early fourteenth century, where it means ‘to release (dogs) from being fastened together in couples; to set free for the chase’. Interestingly, this is found earlier than its opposite (‘to tie or fasten (dogs) together in pairs’), currently dated to c.1400 in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In c.1386, in the hands of Chaucer and ‘The Monk’s Tale’, uncouple is given a figurative use: ‘He maked hym so konnyng and so sowple / That longe tyme it was er tirannye / Or any vice dorste on hym vncowple.’ The wider meaning ‘to unfasten, disconnect, detach’ arrives in the early sixteenth century, and that is where things rested for some centuries.

The twentieth century saw another couple of uncouples – one of which is applicable to the Paltrow-Martins, and one of which refers to a very different field. In 1948, a biochemical use is first recorded – which the OED defines ‘to separate the processes of (phosphorylation) from those of oxidation’. But six years earlier, an American Thesaurus of Slang includes the word as a synonym for ‘to divorce’, and this forms the earliest example found in theOED sense defined as ‘to separate at the end of a relationship’. Other instances of uncouple meaning ‘to split up’ can be found in a 1977Washington Post article and one from the Boston Globe in 1989.

So, despite all the attention given to the term ‘conscious uncoupling’, people have been uncoupling in exactly the same way as Gwyneth and Chris – and using the same word – since at least 1942. So perhaps not quite as controversial as some commentators suggested.


Cf. original: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2014/04/word-histories-conscious-uncoupling/