son, son, son

The word son is found in many languages and has almost as many meanings. Here are just a few of them.

In English, Norwegian and Swedish, son is a male child. Hence patronyms such as Johnson (son of John) and Erikson (son of Erik).

In Afrikaans and Sranan, son means sun.

In French and Spanish, the noun son means sound (from Latin sonus). Also, Son is a style of dance music originated in Cuba.

Catalan son and Russian сон mean sleep or dream (from Latin somnus).

(son) is Korean word for hand. Son is also a common Korean name.

Finally, in Azeri and Turkish son is the end.

vodka, not a little water

Encyclopædia Britannica says (1a):

Vodka originated in Russia during the 14th century, and the name is a diminutive of the Russian voda (“water”).

At first, Wikipedia sticks to the same nonsense (1b):

The name “vodka” is a diminutive form of the Slavic word voda (water), interpreted as little water.

However, in the same Wikipedia article, an alternative explanation is given (2):

As alcohol had long been used as a basis for medicines, this implies that the term vodka could be a noun derived from the verb vodit’, razvodit’ (водить, разводить), “to dilute with water”.

At least, Викисловарь is less categorical. According to one hypothesis, водка is derived from Polish word wódka, which, in turn, may be a truncated calque of the Latin aqua vitae.

True, one — but not the only — function of Russian suffix -к- is to form diminutives, usually from second-declension nouns. Also, there are other suffixes which are used to this effect. Diminutive of вода (water) is водичка. Diminutive of водка is водочка. There are plenty of second-declension nouns which end with -ка but are not diminutives:

Main Diminutive(s) Meaning
белка белочка squirrel
кошка кошечка pussycat
настойка настоечка tincture
палка палочка stick
полка полочка shelf
река речка, реченька, речушка river
рука ручка, рученька, ручонка arm, hand
цыганка цыганочка Gypsy woman

Note that the words река and рука don’t have suffixes: in both cases, к is part of a root.

Let’s come back to the hypothesis (2), which relates водка to the verbs водить (to lead, to drive, to move) and разводить (to dilute). It is not as ridiculous as one can think. However, водить, разводить, проводить and so on have nothing to do with water. Have a look at the table:

Verb Meaning Verbal noun Meaning
водить / вести to lead, to drive водка vodka
наводить / навести to aim, to lead to, to guide наводка (lens) focusing; (gun) laying
проводить / провести to conduct, to guide проводка wiring
разводить / развести to separate, to take apart, to dilute разводка (saw) setting; drawing (of a bridge)
сводить / свести to bring together сводка summary

As you can see, the meaning of all the nouns has something to do with “to lead”, “to move”, “to drive”, while the corresponding verbal nouns (apart from водка) mean something that is either a process or a result of that process. Now it would be neat to show that водка is also a result of some driving/moving process. Distillation perhaps?

they brought me an avocado

Umberto Eco’s essay How to Travel with a Salmon contains a funny if puzzling line:

I asked for a lawyer, and they brought me an avocado.

But why? Original Italian text Come Viaggiare con un Salmone says:

Ho chiesto un avvocato e mi hanno portato un mango.

Avvocato means “lawyer”. Mango, apparently, is the next best thing to avocado. The pun is clearly lost in translation.

Avocado, as well as tomato and chocolate, are of Central American origin. The Nahuatl words āhuacatl, chocolatl and tomatl were adopted by Spanish as aguacate, chocolate and tomate, respectively. In her seminal Chocolate: The Consuming Passion, Sandra Boynton jokes that

it was not until chocolate came to the United States that people began spelling and pronouncing it correctly: CHOCOLATE

— even though the Spanish spelling of chocolate is exactly the same. Most European languages accepted (with some variations) the Spanish versions, while Italians invented their own word for tomato: pomodoro (literally, “golden apple”). Russian employs both words, in slightly different contexts: томат typically refers to the whole tomato plant while помидор is just the fruit. Still, we drink томатный сок (tomato juice).

Nahuatl āhuacatl chocolatl tomatl
Spanish aguacate chocolate tomate
Afrikaans avokado sjokolade tamatie
Dutch avocado chocolade tomaat
English avocado chocolate tomato
Finnish avokado suklaa tomaatti
French avocat chocolat tomate
German Avocado Schokolade Tomate
Greek αβοκάντο σοκολάτα τομάτα
Italian avocado cioccolato pomodoro
Portuguese abacate chocolate tomate
Russian авокадо шоколад помидор, томат
Turkish avokado çikolata domates

make us a hygge

According to Wikipedia,

One of the fundamental aspects of Danish culture is “hygge”, which, although translated as “coziness” is more akin to “tranquility”. Hygge is a complete absence of anything annoying, irritating, or emotionally overwhelming, and the presence of and pleasure from comforting, gentle, and soothing things. Hygge is often associated with family and close friends. 

Hygge [ˈhyɡə] is a noun. The corresponding adjective is hyggelig [‘hygəli].
You don’t have to be in Denmark to experience hygge and hyggelig things, but it helps a lot. Hygge is:

  • having a candlelit dinner (breakfast, lunch, tea and so on. In their pursuit of hygge, Danes burn more candles per capita than any other nation.)
  • sitting outside the log cabin in the long summer evening (and having a blanket nearby in case it gets too chilly)
  • sitting inside the log cabin in the long winter evening, cuddling up in front of a roaring fire
  • enjoying good music in a cozy location with friends, or maybe just having a chat
  • staying late in bed without feeling guilty about it

and things of that nature generally.

Since there’s no exact English translation, I suggest the English speakers adopt hygge, both word and lifestyle. That will do us all a lot of good. (The German equivalent, Gemütlichkeit, does not sound near as hyggelig as hygge. Maybe it is not an equivalent then.)

Which reminds me, next visit to IKEA to buy a few boxes of tealights.

Why names?

Ce n’est pas pour rien que les humains portent des noms à la place des matricules: le prénom est la clé de la personne. C’est le cliquetis délicat de sa serrure quand on veut ouvrir sa porte. C’est la musique métallique qui rend le don possible. Le matricule est à la connaissance de l’autre ce que la carte d’identité est à la personne: rien.

Amélie Nothomb, Acide Sulfurique


Not for nothing do human beings bear names rather than numbers: the first name is the key to the personality. It is the delicate click of the lock when you want to open the door. It’s the metallic music that makes the gift possible. The number is to knowledge of the other what the identity card is to the person: precisely nothing.

Amélie Nothomb, Sulphuric Acid (translated by Shaun Whiteside)