Take me out to the ball game

For the first time in a long time, I find myself eagerly anticipating a football game. Well, having some interest in it, at least…

Of course, the fact that it’s Gaelic football (and I’m still buzzing from a recent trip to the Emerald Isle) may have something to do with it.

This afternoon is the final of the 2016 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, which is being contested by Dublin and Mayo. I’m not sure whether to support the Dubs (because I’ve been to Dublin a few times and have at least one fairly good friend from there) or Mayo (because they have nice red and green uniforms which remind me slightly of the Welsh flag). Ultimately I’m not too bothered who wins it but I hope I’ll get a chance to catch some highlights of the game later on, though I’m unlikely to see the whole match.

Gaelic football seems to me to lie somewhere between rugby (a game I love, though I don’t generally follow it all that closely) and association football, aka soccer (a game that doesn’t particularly interest me at all) in terms of its rules and playing style – it uses a round ball (like soccer) and seems to have a bit more kicking than rugby but also allows carrying the ball and is a bit more of a contact sport than soccer, though less than rugby. One interesting feature is that not only are there several different ways to score (like in rugby, though in this case it’s scoring goals by kicking the ball into a fairly small goal area defined by two upright posts and a crossbar or scoring points by kicking or fisting it over the crossbar) but the goals and points scores are recorded separately, e.g. 1-7 would mean a single goal and 7 points; a goal is worth 3 points so that particular score would equal 10 points (a score of 1-7 would beat 0-9 but not 0-11; I think, though I’m not entirely sure, that 1-7 and 0-10 would count as a tie, in which case I think the game would usually be replayed). I’ve only watched a very small amount of Gaelic football so far but I found it quite exciting to watch.

There are several other Gaelic games but the other big one is hurling. I’d say this interests me even more than Gaelic football. The two games are actually quite similar in many respects (e.g. they are played on the same size pitch, both with teams of 15 players, and use the same scoring distinction between goals and points) but hurling is played with sticks and a smaller ball. I have heard hurling described as “a cross between hockey and murder”.

The final of this year’s All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship took place a couple of weeks ago between Tipperary (who won) and Kilkenny (the previous victors; apparently these two teams and Cork dominate hurling, while there’s a much broader spread in the football world). I watched and enjoyed highlights of that match. I also watched the whole of the All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship last week; this time Kilkenny beat Cork (the winners for the past two years). In case you were wondering, camogie is the women’s equivalent of hurling (a game played only by men) and is essentially the same apart from a few minor rules differences.

Also in case you were wondering, there is also an All-Ireland Senior Women’s Football Championship, which is due to be taking place next Sunday (I can’t remember the teams involved) and, as with hurling and camogie, there are a few minor differences in rules (though, in this case not in name) between men’s and women’s football.

Lest you think this is turning into a sports blog, I should finish with a couple of linguistic observations.

Firstly, as you will have observed, the titles of the Gaelic football championships don’t actually mention the word Gaelic. I gather that in Ireland, the word “football” on its own is usually taken to mean Gaelic football, just as the bare term is used to mean soccer in the UK (and other parts of the world where it is the dominant football code) or American football in the USA and either Australian-rules football or rugby league in Australia (I gather there are some areas where one is significantly more popular than the other), etc. I’m sure there are plenty of other examples in non-sporting contexts of words where the same generic term is used in different parts of the world to refer to different specific cases (presumably usually the most dominant one in that place), although I can’t immediately think of any clear examples other than football. A non-geographical example would be the use of the word “bass” to refer to tubas in the brass band world, whereas it would refer to double basses in an orchestra or (most likely) a bass guitar in a rock group. The moral of the story is that context is king.

The other observation is the etymology of the word “camogie”, which seems to bear no relation to the word “hurling” despite the two sports having much the same relationship to each other as (men’s) and women’s (or ladies’, as it seems to be officially called) Gaelic football (and as far as I know, camogie is never – at least officially – referred to as “ladies’ hurling”). I gather that, although the modern games only date back to the late 19th or early 20th centuries, their roots, and especially that of hurling, are quite ancient. The stick used for hurling is known in English as a hurley (hence the name of the sport) and in Irish as a camán; as in English, the Irish name for the sport was related to that of the stick and it was called camánaíocht (I think that -aíocht is roughly the equivalent of “-ing”), although this has mutated to iománaíocht in modern Irish. One of the differences between the men’s and women’s games is that the latter is played with slightly smaller sticks (and balls) and, in Irish, the women’s stick is called a camóg (the -óg bit being a fairly common diminutive suffix in Irish; i.e. it’s a “small hurley”) and hence the game was called camógaíocht. Whereas the men’s game (presumably due to its much older roots) developed a completely separate name in English, the women’s game just borrowed the Irish name and anglicised it to “camogie” (and, unlike the men’s version, has also kept its original form in Irish).

I’ve no idea of the etymology of either “hurley” or camán, but you have to stop somewhere. And so I shall.

Strike Three

Having written a couple of posts about cricket last week, I thought I’d complete my hat-trick of sports-related posts by going off on a bit of a curveball.

The term curveball is not, as far as I know, used in cricket. It is actually a baseball term, which is quite appropriate as that’s the sport to which I’m mostly going to devote today’s post.

One of my transatlantic friends commented (via Facebook) on the last post that cricket is “kinda like baseball”. She said it rather tongue-in-cheek (having lived over here for long enough to pick up a bit of a British sense of humour, I suspect) but there is a certain grain of truth in the observation, as there are some striking similarities (as well as some obvious differences) between the two games.

Baseball is not a particularly high-profile sport here in the UK and has never particularly grabbed my attention. Before doing a spot of internet research (i.e. reading a handful of Wikipedia articles and watching a couple of video clips) over the weekend, I knew little more than that it was a game a bit like rounders but played with a bigger bat and having a few more rules. I don’t know much more about it even now, but I’ve managed to glean sufficient understanding of the rules and culture of baseball to finally be able to understand the punchline of a musical joke that I first heard about 20 years ago and was able to recognise as a baseball-related thing without having a clue to the meaning.

The context of the joke is an orchestral performance (presumably somewhere in the USA, the home of baseball) of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. The bass section, faced with a long gap with nothing to play, take the opportunity of slipping out and nipping across the road for a swift half at the local pub (or a couple of beers at the nearest bar, or whatever) and take the precaution of tying together the last couple of pages of the conductor’s score in order to slow him down before he gets to their entry in case they are delayed in returning. Sure enough, when the basses stagger back in having enjoyed one half too many they find the irate conductor trying desperately to undo the bit of string round his music as the perplexed performers begin to falter. One member of the audience realises that something’s wrong but has no idea what it is until his friend points out that “it’s the bottom of the 9th, the score is tied and the basses are loaded.”

Although somewhat contrived as a situation for a symphonic concert, this same sentence (with one minor change of spelling) would make perfect sense in baseball and would be an exciting situation, as the next two paragraphs will hopefully demonstrate.

Innnings are a feature of both baseball and cricket and refer to a team’s chance to bat. Cricket (and I believe also rounders) uses “innings” as singular and plural; baseball reserves the final ‘s’ for the plural. Also, baseball splits each inning (of which there are nine) between the two teams, with the first team taking the top half and the other team the bottom half, while cricket teams get a whole innings, or two (depending on the format of the match), each. Hence, in baseball, the bottom of the 9th [inning] is the last phase of the game, although if the score is tied (i.e. both teams have the same number of runs) at the end there is a tie-breaker mechanism (the nature of which has temporarily eluded my memory).

In baseball, the batting team score runs by running round a series of bases laid out at the points of a diamond (i.e. a square viewed from the corner) and the fielding team try to stop them by getting the ball to each base before the runners reach there (each batsman becomes a runner as soon as he hits the ball, drops his bat and starts running). Often they don’t get all the way round in one go and if they stop part-way they have to wait at one of the bases; they need to get back home (i.e. to the point from which they batted) in order to score their run. You aren’t allowed to overtake a runner who is ahead of you and it’s not unusual for there to be runners waiting at several bases. If all the bases are occupied they are said to be loaded. Apparently this situation presents a good scoring opportunity for the batting team but also a good “double play” opportunity for the fielding team – i.e. a chance to get two of the batting team out in one go. If your bases are loaded when it’s the bottom of the 9th and the score is tied, the next pitch is crucial and the game could go either way (and the orchestra joke is actually at least moderately funny).

I have never played baseball and I expect I never will. The closest I’ve got was playing rounders at junior school (where I used to attend our after-school rounders club and on just one occasion was selected to play for our school against another school – albeit on the second team; sadly the match was cancelled due to rain) and a few games of softball at secondary school (it wasn’t one of our regular sports in PE lessons but we occasionally played it for a change and I’m fairly sure I enjoyed playing it quite a lot more than cricket).

Incidentally, the term hat-trick itself apparently comes from cricket although these days it’s perhaps most associated with football (the association variety, appropriately enough) and can be used for a threefold achievement in a variety of sporting contexts. Wikipedia tells me that the term originated when a bowler called H[eathfield] H[arman] Stephenson took three wickets with consecutive balls in a cricket match in 1858; the fans were so impressed they had a whip-round and bought a nice hat to present to him. Although the practice of buying hats to mark the occasion seems to have been a one-off the name stuck for similar performances and was soon generalised to other triple successes in sport, such as scoring three goals in football (I’m not sure whether they have to be consecutive to count as a hat-trick, or if other people can score in between them).

Mugging Up

For quite a while now, probably at least since the start of this summer if not before, I’ve been wondering about the origin of the English word muggy, used to describe unpleasantly hot and humid weather. I’ve finally got round to looking it up…

According to the OED (or at least the Oxford Dictionaries website) it dates back to the mid 18th century and comes from mug, a dialect word (it doesn’t say what dialect) meaning “mist” or “drizzle”, which itself derives from an Old Norse word, mugga (evidently with the same meaning).

Wiktionary says more or less the same thing (minus the bit about coming via an English dialect). It also gives several synonyms – close, oppressive and sultry.

The latter is particularly interesting as, in addition to having a non-meteorological meaning of “sexually enthralling”, can (according to Wiktionary, at least) mean either “hot and humid” (i.e. muggy) or “very hot and dry”. The probable etymology is from the verb to swelter (itself coming from an Old English verb sweltan, meaning “to die”), which is used of suffering terribly, or perspiring, from great heat (with no reference to whether the heat is wet or dry).

Incidentally, today is St Swithun’s Day which, as I remember from a junior school assembly roughly 30 years ago, is traditionally supposed to determine the weather for the next 40 days (as in, if it rains today it will go on raining and if it doesn’t it will stay dry). Today has been, at least in my corner of North Wales, a lovely sunny day. Sadly, however, empirical evidence over the last several years suggests that this rule of thumb is not entirely reliable in these parts.

A nice cup of Joe

As I mentioned a while back, I’ve probably drunk at least 20,000 cups of coffee so far in my life (and look forward to enjoying many more).

Although it’s not a term I use very often, I have long been aware of “a cup of joe” as a slang term for a cup of coffee.  I have often wondered about the origin of this term, albeit not enough to get round to trying to find out.

Today, however, my question was answered in a post on one of my favourite food blogs.  It turns out that it dates back to the First World War, when it was first used by the US Navy.  At the time, the Secretary of the Navy in Woodrow Wilson’s administration was a man called Josephus Daniels.  He was keen to improve the moral standard of the Navy and thus introduced several changes including the banning of alcohol.

Needless to say, this was not very popular with the sailors, who had to drink coffee instead of their alcoholic beverages of choice.  They began to refer disparagingly to a cup of coffee as “a cup of Joseph Daniels”, which soon got shortened to “a cup of joe” and the name stuck.

It certainly sounds like a plausible explanation for the term.  But…

… a bit of further research (i.e. skim-reading the Wikipedia page on Josephus Daniels) turned up another, somewhat longer, article that casts doubt on this explanation.  It points out that the US Navy at the time was actually a relatively sober outfit in any case so Daniels’ banning of alcohol (which seems genuinely to have happened, though it was actually just aboard ships, apart from special occasions) didn’t actually make  a very large impact on the lives of the enlisted men, since their rum ration had been abolished about 50 years earlier.  It did affect the officers, as it put a stop to their regular wine drinking, but there were relatively few officers and so, as the Snopes article charmingly puts it “the impact of [the alcohol ban] would have been relatively mild, certainly not the stuff of which rueful sobriquets are coined”.

The Snopes article asserts that the actual origin of “cup of joe” is unknown but does postulate a couple of other, more plausible, hypothoses.

One is that “joe” is a corruption of another slang term for coffee – either “java” (which is still in fairly regular usage) or “jamoke” (which I’ve never heard before); it doesn’t explain the origin of “java”, which I assume comes from one of the places that coffee is grown, but it says that “jamoke” is probably a portmanteau of “java” and “mocha”.

The other hypothesis is that it comes from the use of “joe” as slang for an ordinary man (a usage that is attested at least as far back as the 1840s).  The idea is that “a cup of joe” is the drink of the common man.

Ultimately, the origin of the term is and will presumably remain unknown.  Still, it may give you something interesting to think about next time you’re relaxing over a cup of coffee.

Lollygagging

I came across a new word, or at least one I don’t recall having encountered before, this morning: lollygag.

The Oxford Dictionary of English on my Kindle, where I first found the word, says that it is an informal North American verb meaning “to spend time aimlessly; idle”.  There were two example sentences given: “She goes to Arizona every January to lollygag in the sun” and “We’re lollygagging along”.  The word is claimed to date from the mid 19th century and be of unknown origin.

According to Wiktionary (see the link above), the word occurs in (presumably informal) US English, and means “to dawdle; to be lazy or idle; to avoid necessary work or effort.”  This seems a slightly more negative definition than the ODE one.

Wiktionary didn’t give any example sentences using lollygag as a verb, although there are translations into a few other languages, such as paresser in French, trödeln or schlampen in German and бездельничать (or byezdyelnichat for a very rough transliteration) in Russian; none of those are words I’ve previously encountered either, although I have spoken and read considerably less of any of those languages than English.

I did a quick Google search to see if I could find some examples in the wild.  Most of the hits I got were definitions or explanations of the term, but I did manage eventually to find some sentences using the word.  Probably my favourite was from a New York Times article:

The first time I saw a tarantula lollygagging on the front porch…

Lollygag can, apparently, also be used as a noun, meaning “silliness, nonsense”.  Wiktionary did give an example sentence for this one:

He likes to do his car up with blacked-out windows, and all that lollygag.

The only translation given for the noun version was the French absurdité, which I’m sure I have seen (and possibly used) before.

I can’t think of a particularly good Welsh translation for lollygag as a verb, but the noun use is fairly similar to the Welsh word lol, which roughly means “nonsense” (as in “Paid â siarad lol” – “Don’t talk nonsense”).  It’s tempting to think that there may be an etymological connection between lol and lollygag but I think it’s more likely that it’s just a coincidence.

Hello, bonsoir & croeso

I recently joined a new group on Facebook called Bangor Polyglots.  As the name suggests, this is for people based in the Bangor area (that’s the one in North West Wales rather than any of the many others around the world) who speak several languages and have a strong interest in language in general.   As you might also guess from the fact that the name specifies a geographical location, this is intended to be a group that has face-to-face meetings rather than just existing in cyberspace.
The group only began to meet a fortnight ago and, at the moment, they meet on Monday evenings at one of the pubs in Bangor (the Ship Launch, down near the pier).  This is unfortunate for me, since on Monday evenings I have rehearsals with the Menai Bridge Band.  However, I discovered after the first meeting that they go on fairly late (until around 11pm), which gives me a chance to get across after the band practice (which finishes at 9).  Since the weather was fine (albeit cold) last night and I wasn’t feeling too tired, I cycled across to meet the others for the first time last night.

As it happens, there were only 3 other people there (though apparently there had also been one other person there earlier), one of whom I already know, so it wasn’t too daunting to join in the meeting.

One of those present was Simon, the organiser of the group (and the one I already knew).  He is also the creator and maintainer of the Omniglot website – an online encylopedia of languages and writing systems.  I first came across this fascinating website some time before Simon moved to Bangor so I was delighted when I met him a few years back and discovered that he was the man behind it.  He speaks several languages to a high standard and has a particular interest in the Celtic languages.   He’s also learning Russian, which I studied for a while (as a subsidiary subject) at university (far too many years ago).

The other two people there are, I gather, both students.  I think Rhian is studying linguistics and Sam is studying German (with a bit of Dutch on the side).  They both speak Welsh and Cornish, as well as several other languages.

Last night’s general conversation was mostly in a fairly free mix of Welsh and English.  I also had a bit of a chat with Simon in French and Russian and we all threw bits of quite a few other languages into the mix too, so it definitely qualified as a meeting of polyglots.  One of the notable topics of conversation was the notion of cellar doors, as propounded (though apparently not originated) by J. R. R. Tolkien.  Both Rhian and I were delighted to find somebody else (i.e. each other) who was familiar with this concept and we had great fun explaining it to the others and then all coming up with our own cellar doors in various languages (if you’ve no idea what I’m talking about you may want to check out the link in the previous sentence to Simon’s blog, where he has written about cellar doors today).  We also spent some time discussing compound words in German (and trying to make up some of our own, then translate them into Welsh), the Welsh translation of “passion fruit” (which none of us knew – I looked it up later and apparently it’s granadila, which is very similar to the French grenadille) and the current state of the various different proposals for a standard dialect of modern Cornish (a scene which appears to be even more fragmented than when I last seriously looked at it several years ago, when there were three main claimants for the title).

I did manage to get an answer for a question that’s been bugging me (slightly) for a couple of weeks.  A friend and I were discussing corgis (the small Welsh dogs beloved of Queen Elizabeth) and we couldn’t remember the meaning of the word.  It is a Welsh compound word, breaking down to cor + gi (< ci = dog) but we couldn’t remember what cor meant.  We did flippantly speculate that it could be côr = choir, which would make corgis dogs that sing in choirs.  🙂 However, it turns out (as Rhian reminded me last night) that cor is a synonym or abbreviation (I’m not sure which) of corrach = dwarf, so a corgi is actually a dwarf dog (not a bad description, really).

All told, I had a very pleasant evening with my fellow polyglots.  I’ll probably try and get across for the meetings (or at least the last part of them) whenever possible (which will probably be based on what the weather’s like and whether I’m feeling sufficiently energetic to cycle there and back).  I hope that this will help me to polish my French and Russian (and Welsh, for that matter) and perhaps learn a bit more Cornish and a few odds and ends of other languages.