The name of the Ebola virus which is making the headlines today originates from the Ebola River in the Congo. The first time the disease appeared was in August 1976. Patient zero was a schoolteacher who had been touring along the Ebola River just days before he was identified with what become known as the Ebola virus. This was the start of a virus which has an average fatality rate of 83%.
Up to 2013, the World Health Organization recorded a total of approximately 2,000 Ebola cases in 24 outbreaks, all of them in Africa. Original scientific papers used various different names for the disease including haemorrhagic fever and Marburg-like virus. The New York Times on 1 December 1976 was an early use in a national use. It described the disease as a green monkey fever “which will be known as the Ebola Virus”. The word came into medical use almost immediately after a series of articles in The Lancet in March 1977.
If you are up to it, read more about the Ebola virus in the non-fiction thriller The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. But be warned. The blurb on the book says that it is “one of the most horrifying things I’ve read in my whole life”. And it was written by Stephen King who is not easily frightened! Not surprising for a description of a disease which extremely unpleasant, almost certainly fatal and for which there is no vaccine or licenced treatment.
The English word sanction originates from the French word of the same spelling which means legislation or law. Until the end of the 1500s it was used widely in a religious context with sanctions referred to in terms of the commandments or divine law.
Only gradually was sanction used as a legal term meaning a penalty for not complying with social law. In the 1700s and 1800s sanction was mainly used in this legal context.
The idea of sanction as an economic weapon was first used in English after the First World War. The 1925 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature and one of the co-founders of the London School of Economics George Bernard Shaw wrote a pamphlet Peace conference hints in 1919 in which he described “Such widely advocated and little thought-out ‘sanctions’ as the outlawry and economic boycott of a recalcitrant nation”. It did not take long for the word to move out of inverted commas.
Just how effective sanctions are is a matter of debate. Key examples of economic sanctions are the United States against Cuba, or the United Nations against Iraq, South Africa and Zimbabwe or the current sanctions being imposed against Russia.
Mantra originally comes from Sanskrit and means “thought”. It was first used in English by Henry Colebrook, a famous British expert on the Orient and one of the founders of the Royal Asiatic Society. In a contribution to Asiatick Researches entitled On the duties of a faithful Hindu widow he mentions the mantra several times. It appears that the main duty of a Hindu woman who has lost her husband is to commit suicide on the pyre of her departed spouse. The person conducting the funeral utters mantras each of which describe the duty of jumping into the flames. Incidentally, it was only in 1987 that the Indian government passed a law outlawing this practise and went onto provide prison sentences for the woman who burned herself; if the woman did not survive, then the relatives could be prosecuted. After a list of reasons to perform this duty, an opt-out or “alternative” for the widow was given, although they were not particularly pleasant either – only one meal a day, never sleeping on a bed and, of course, chastity.
The next person to use the word mantra also described what had to be done at the death of a Hindu family member. William Ward, a missionary to India, wrote a long work on the Hindus. It included an account that the son of the deceased father should place two balls of boiled rice with a mantra at the pyre. This was the original version of 1811. It was obviously misunderstood since, in the next version, mantra was replaced with incantation!
The idea of a mantra as something separate from the Hindu religion took more than 150 years to develop. Now a mantra also refers to something like a slogan or a catch phase which is repeated so many times that the idea is instilled in people’s minds as a generally accepted ideal or philosophy. Former Chief Evangelist at Apple, Guy Kawasaki, recommends to businesses that they have a mantra of two or three words for employers and customers that is "short, sweet, and swallowable"; something which motivates and fires the imagination. What would your mantra be?
A futon is a traditional style Japanese bed that is still widely used in Japanese homes today. Futons are thin mattresses placed directly on the floor - usually a soft rice straw flooring called tatami – and do not require a bed frame. In a country where space is a luxury, futons are ideal because they can be easily folded up and stored away during the day time to create more living space for the family.
The English translation of the 1876 book Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan became the first reference for the word futon in the English language, but it was in1885 that the American zoologist Edward Sylvester Morse described the traditional use of futon in more detail in his book Japanese homes and their surroundings. Describing his stay in a Japanese inn he writes: “In fact this work is ridiculously simple. The futons, or comforters, are rapidly folded up and stowed away, or hung over the balcony rail to air.”
Even now in the 21st century, on any given day in Japan, you can drive through the streets, past the endless rows of apartment blocks and see Japanese housewives hanging futons over the balcony rail and hitting them with a paddle to keep them clean. Futons are a part of life from day one for the Japanese. Unlike in western countries where babies often sleep in cots, Japanese babies will sleep with their parents- on a futon. Futons are a family affair and three or more may be laid out on the floor, with mom and dad on the two end futons and junior in the middle - this makes for quite a bad night’s sleep once the little one has learned to move around and get out of bed on his own free will. Western style beds have become increasingly popular in Japan, but while there exists a desperate need for more space and with the tradition of children sleeping with their parents up until around the age of six, there is nothing that beats the convenience of the futon.
Wasabi is a hot green-coloured condiment used in Japanese cooking, most often in sushi. A small amount of wasabi is placed on top of a piece of sushi rice which is then covered by a slice of raw fish. Because the amount used tends to be small, it brings a short, sharp burst of heat to the inside of the nose which soon disappears and the effect is much like that of horseradish or mustard. Indeed, because of the wasabi plants fragility in terms of its ability to retain flavour once harvested, many overseas sushi restaurants use a mixture of horseradish and green food colouring to give the impression of real wasabi.
All the way back in 1903, wasabi’s similarity to horseradish was noted in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Plant Industry No. 42 bulletin which claimed that "there is a fresh sharpness about Japanese wasabi that not even the finest Austrian sorts of horse radish possess.” This was the first time that the term wasabi was mentioned in the English language, but over 100 years later it is still not a word widely understood by English speakers, unless they are fans of sushi.
In Japan, when you visit a sushi shop, you can order sushi with or without wasabi. Children don't tend to eat it and in supermarkets you can find boxes of takeaway sushi that are labelled “no wasabi.” In some high end sushi restaurants, the chef will prepare the wasabi paste using the actual stem of the vegetable.
As a result of the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine, 2014 is quickly becoming “the year of the sanction.” Regardless of how the overall situation will actually play out over the next months and, perhaps, years, political and economic sanctions have become the preferred tool of EU politicians to curtail Russian influence on the conflict. In turn, Russia has reacted to EU and U.S. sanctions by imposing their own import restrictions on EU goods and products. While the political effectiveness of sanctions always depend on the severity and duration of the impositions as well as the determination to enforce them, the actual dependency of the sanctioned country on the goods in question is vitally important in determining the outcome of the strategy. While long and harsh sanctions on Iran, most notably the restrictions on oil exports and financial trade, certainly yielded results and ultimately brought the Iranian government to the negotiating table, it remains doubtful if the sanctions against Russia, in its current form, will have any impact on Putin’s policies. Not only because the interdependence between Russia and, at least, European countries is far greater than US-Iranian economic ties ever were, but also because there is already an eager group of countries willing and able to offer new outlets for Russian exports as well as providing the goods formerly imported from the E.U.
An interesting and noteworthy byproduct of the system of economic sanctions resulting from the crisis in Ukraine is the formation of new economic alliances that might unsettle the international trade systems for years to come. In 2013, the United States and the European Union exported a combined $17.1 billion worth of agricultural products to Russia ($1.3 and $15.8 billion, respectively). Russia’s import stop on agricultural products from the EU put a sudden halt to the deliveries. EU politicians were hoping that empty supermarket shelves would bring Russians to put pressure on their government, but so far that is not the case - quite the opposite. Designer T-shirts bearing the portrait of Vladimir Putin are currently the vogue among Moscow’s rich and famous and a sure sign of the unbroken public support for the controversial president. To make matters worse for EU foreign policy makers, last week Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi landed in Moscow for a surprise visit to the Kremlin during which he assured Russians that Egyptian companies would deliver some of the products formerly imported from suppliers in Spain, Italy, Greece, and Portugal. In addition to Egypt, other countries, notably the South American nations of Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay, have closed ranks with traditional Soviet-era allies such as Belorussia and Kazakhstan to supply agricultural products to Russia and form new trading alliances.
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Linschoten gave us the words mango, and bamboo. Jan Huyghen van Linschoten was a Dutch merchant who travelled extensively, in Spain, Portugal and then six years with Portuguese ships visiting the Arctic, Africa and Asia. His descriptions in Dutch of these journeys were some of the earliest first-hand information on the places visited. They were almost immediately translated into English, German and French. In England it was published in 1598 as Discours of Voyages into ye Easte & West Indies. This book was translated by William Phillip who was probably the first Dutch to English translator, specialising in travel literature.
It was here that curry was mentioned for the first time. In an account of Indian eating habits, it is stated that “Most of their fish is eaten with rice, which they seeth in broth which they put upon the rice, and is somewhat sour but it tasteth well, and is called Carril, which is their daily meat.”
Curry as a word comes from the Tamil word kari which is a sauce for rice and which found its way to English via the Portuguese who called it caril. This is stated quite clearly in an early reference to curry as a way to spice up rice. In his book An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, Robert Knox writes from his own experience – he was a prisoner on the island for 19 years. He notes that the Indians collect delicious unripe fruits and “boil them to make curry to use the Portuguese word”. This is the first real description about what is today Sri Lanka and made its writer Robert Knox famous.
But it was a long time later before there was a recipe in English for curry. Hannah Glasse The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy was the cooking book for the eighteenth century and went into multiple editions. She describes how “To Make Curry the India Way”, but it does not have much relation to what is considered curry today. To chicken she recommends adding nothing much more than rice, turmeric, ginger and pepper corn.
However, curry only really found its way to England as a result of civil servants returning from the Raj and from the huge influx of immigrants from Asian after the Second World War.
The term spicy originates from the word spices. It refers to food that leaves a burning sensation in one’s mouth (Scoville). It was also used to refer to something lively or spirited and, according to the Urban Dictionary, the word spicy is also used today in reference to something scandalous, risqué, or even racy.
Let us follow the two threads:
The word spicy was first used by the father of English botany, William Turner. Referring to the citron in the 1568 version of Herbal, he comments that “the peel is spicy not only in terms of smell, but also taste.” One of the next references to spicy can be found in the work of Francis Bacon who was England’s Attorney General and Lord Chancellor, as well as a famous scientist – and as such the first one to receive a knighthood for services rendered. The list of his publications is long, but it was in A Natural History (which was published in 1627 just after he died) that Bacon mentioned fennel seeds which “are sweet before they ripen and after grow spicy”. For the next 200 years, spicy was used to describe something that smells of spices or is simply aromatic.
It was only in the 1800s that additional meanings were layered on the word spicy. Sports Magazine reported on all kinds of sports in England and in 1828 had a feature which included the words “We had a remarkably spicy team,” here meaning lively or spirited. In his 1844 novel, Parsons and Widows, Joseph Hewlett writes about the insinuating articles of a magazine which are written anonymously with indiscretions funnily but severely exposed. It caused a sensation because the articles were “so clever and so very spicy”. Around the same time, a horse which cost too much was described as a “spicy-looking nag.”
Over the last 20 years, there has been a leap forward with both threads of connotations. Spicy in relation to food is now used predominantly to describe foods that have heat-generating qualities. This is the result of the large influx of Indian restaurants in the United Kingdom and to a lesser extent to tourism to Asia and the experience of its spicy cuisine.
Spicy has also increasingly become a synonym for sexy. Now anything from perfumes, lingerie, even condoms are advertised as being spicy. It is doubtful that Turner would approve of such usage of the term.
The majority of people who have studied a foreign language would agree that learning a new language is a difficult process, and it’s quite easy to understand why people think this way. Learning a foreign language requires us to not only recapitulate words, but more so to think in a different language and then articulate those ideas with the help of a new and still developing vocabulary and within a novel and often confusing syntax.
But even once we have mastered a foreign language to the degree that we feel comfortable enough to use it confidently, new foreign language pitfalls wait around the corner. Regional dialects, most certainly, are one reason for language learner’s frustration. The French spoken in France, for instance, can be markedly different than the French spoken in the French Canadian province of Quebec. While speakers can understand each other, there are certain differences in pronunciation and word usage that have developed over time. For instance, the typical Parisian knows that the word depanneur in French means something akin to “to help out of difficulty.” However, only someone from French Canada would know that you were referring to a corner convenience store. While the differences between Parisian French and the French spoken in parts of Canada were heightened over time by the geographical and cultural separation of two after the end of French colonial rule after the Seven Years’ War, the example described is very common for regional peculiarities. Similar differences can be easily found between the English spoken in the UK and the variants of English spoken in the U.S., Australia and South New Zealand, for instance and the Spanish spoken in Spain and the dialects of Latin and South America. The problem with these local differences is that they are rarely taught in French, English or Spanish classes.
Many non-native speakers of English feel that English is a difficult language to learn. While understanding the basic mechanics of the language itself may not be overly difficult, it is often the previously-mentioned imperceptible local differences that can cause frustration among language learners. Beyond the typical linguistic differences of regional dialect, colloquialisms, tone, and manner of speaking, determine the actual meaning of a term or phrase. As a result, native English speakers, at times, rely on phrases to express the very opposite the terms literal meaning would convey. Here are some examples:
- When discussing solutions to a problem, if someone replies to a solution with the phrase “that’s one way of looking at it,” this is the polite form of saying that the suggestion is not a good idea and is not considered a valid solution to the problem at hand.
- The phrase “with all respect,” is rarely used to actually give respect; instead, it is often used to mask and subsequently introduce criticism. Just think then what “with all due respect” really means.
- In a business setting, a manager may tell an employee to deal with an issue or problem “whenever they get a minute.” More often than not, this does not mean- as it implies- that the problem can really wait, it usually means that it is an issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
It is certainly no surprise that such mannerisms are confusing to an English student. But where do they actually come from. Much of the reasoning behind these ambivalent phrases has to do with the socio-historical development of the English language and its reflection of social and cultural norms. British values of understatement and politeness manifested themselves also, and especially, in linguistic norms. While English may be the most widely known language that values politeness and understatement above honest, straight-talking, it is far from the only language with an emphasis on social customs. Consider the languages of Asia, for instance, and how word choice and language structure reflect the cultural emphasis on politeness and honor of those societies.
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