What you pretend to know may be wrong! | Sunday Observer

What you pretend to know may be wrong!

When the language is expanding only a very few of us are able to keep up with the rapid changes. Some old words disappear and you come across a host of newly-coined words and phrases in newspapers and magazines. Without trying to learn the meaning of such words and phrases, some of us pretend to know them. This is a great disservice to the language.

The 21st century civilisation has fractured into countless areas of specialisations. Only a genius could stay abreast of the latest buzz words, scientific breakthroughs and cultural references. For instance, how many of us know the difference between ‘gourmet’ and ‘gourmand’? A gourmet is a connoisseur of fine food and wine, but a gourmand is one who stops short of a glutton. ‘Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English for Advanced Learners’ defines a gourmand as “someone who likes to eat and drink a lot.” King Henry VIII, John Belushi and the celebrated actor Marlon Brando are well-known gourmands.

In politics, we often refer to Liberals as the Left and Conservatives as the Right. Most of us do not know how it originated. After the French Revolution, the first National Assembly was convened in 1789. It had 1,177 deputies. The liberal or radical members of the Assembly were seated to the left and the Conservative members to the right. Soon, the term ‘Left Wing’ and ‘Right Wing’ became popular in other parts of the world. Today, we have liberalism and conservatism. Liberalism stands for liberal opinions and principles, especially, on social and political subjects. By extension, liberal studies include subjects that are taught in order to increase our general knowledge and our ability to write, speak, and study more effectively. On the other hand, conservatism dislikes change and new ideas. The British Conservative Party is an example. Sir William S. Gilbert said, “I often think it is comical how nature always does contrive that every boy and every girl that’s born into this world alive is either a little Liberal, or else a little Conservative.”

Draconian measures

Very often, we refer to draconian measures, controls or penalties when they are very strict and cruel. Some countries take draconian measures to control population growth.

The adjective ‘draconian’ comes from Draco, an Athenian legislator who lived in the 7th century BC. His codification of Athenian law was notorious for its severity, in that the death penalty was imposed even for trivial crimes. However, he did not create such laws. They were customs that Greeks had lived by for many years. When Draco codified such customs, many Greeks were appalled at how unreasonable the system was. For instance, petty thefts were punishable by death. If a man fails to pay his debts, he became a debt slave. Eventually, the Greeks threw out Draco and his draconian laws and they were replaced by a set of lenient civil rules.

Have you ever been to ‘No-Man’s-Land’? According to the dictionary, No-Man’s-Land is an area of land that no one owns or controls, especially, an area between two borders of opposing armies. It can also be a situation or type of activity that is not either of two things or is a combination of two things. For instance, there is a No-Man’s-Land between art and science. During the Middle Ages No-Man’s-Land was located outside the north wall of the city of London, where the bodies of criminals were displayed.

At that time, even minor offences were punishable by death. As a result, there were plenty of bodies to serve as a warning or a deterrent to others. After some time, a gallows was built inside the city, but the former execution grounds were claimed by no man. So, the area became a No-Man’s-Land. The phrase No-Man’s-Land became popular in the 20th century.

When I was a sub editor of a weekend newspaper, the editor was so fond of the word ‘angst’ that he often used it in his editorials. ‘Angst’ means strong feelings of anxiety and unhappiness because you are worried about your life, your future, or what you should do in a particular situation. For instance, young lovers used to write love letters full of angst. ‘Angst’ is German for ‘anguish’ and signifies psychological suffering. Sometimes, people suffer from existential angst. They think the mere fact of existing in this world is torment enough.


The word ‘devil’, however much you dislike it, has enriched the English language. In fact, devil in Christian and Jewish belief is the supreme spirit of evil, Satan.

The devil is traditionally depicted with horns, cloven hooves, and a forked tail. When we say, “The devil can quote scripture for his own ends”, we mean that it is possible for someone engaged in wrongdoing to quote selectively from the Bible to support his position. Being a creative creature, the devil finds work for idle hands to do.

The underlying idea is that someone who has no work will get into mischief. Very often, we say the devil is not so black as he is painted. What we mean is that someone may not be as bad as their reputation. When somebody gets a promotion that he does not deserve, we say the devil looks after his own.

A devil’s advocate is not a ruthless lawyer, but someone appointed by the Roman Catholic Church to challenge a proposed beatification or canonisation, or the verification of a miracle.

What is the plural of ‘grass’? It is an uncountable noun and the plural is also ‘grass.’ However, for learners of English ‘grass’ is a useful word. We often hear that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, meaning that something just out of reach always appears more desirable than what you already have. The Roman poet Ovid in “Ars Amatoria” said something similar: “The harvest is always more fruitful in another man’s fields.” Grass widow is a woman whose husband is away often or for a prolonged period. In the early 16th century the word denoted an unmarried woman with a child, perhaps from the idea of the couple having lain on the grass instead of in bed.

We are familiar with the nursery rhyme ‘Jack and Jill’ who go up a hill for water. Both of them fall down. Jack breaks his crown and Jill tumbles after.

It has been suggested that the origin is political, with Jack and Jill representing Henry VII’s ministers Empson and Dudley, who were executed soon after Henry VIII’s accession. There is, however, another interpretation of the popular rhyme. It is said that the rhyme is of Scandinavian origin. In the story two children – Hjuki and Bil – were stolen by the moon while they were drawing water.

Oedipus complex

Those who are familiar with psychology may have come across ‘Oedipus complex.’ In Freudian theory, it is a complex of emotions aroused in a child by an unconscious sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex. The child may also wish to exclude the parent of the same sex.

The term was originally applied to boys, the equivalent in girls being the ‘Electra complex.’ But who is Oedipus? In Greek mythology, he was the son of Jocasta and Laius, king of Thebes. Left to die on a mountain by his father, who had been told by an oracle that he would be killed by his own son, the infant Oedipus was saved by a shepherd.

As a young man Oedipus returned to Thebes, solved the riddle of the Sphinx, but unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. On discovering what he had done, Oedipus put out his own eyes in a fit of rage and Jocasta hanged herself.

The English language is full of pitfalls. If you do not know the exact meaning of a word or phrase, do not use it to impress others. What you pretend to know can be terribly wrong!

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