We’ve secretly replaced their regular Bête Noire. Let’s see if they notice!

When I was in college in Florida, a thousand miles from home, my mother would call regularly. We would chat: I’d tell her some – certainly not all! – of the things going on at school, and she would relate the contents of the A&P sales flyer for that week. At some point in the conversation, she would put my father on the phone. Here’s how the dialogue usually went:

  • Me: “Hi, Papa, how are you?”
  • Father: “Good, good. How are you?”
  • Me: “Fine. School’s good.”
  • Father: “How’s the car?”
  • Me: “The car’s fine. The odometer went this week, so that leaves no working gauges on the dash, but it runs and I keep a gas can in the trunk.”
  • Father: “Good, good. Are you changing the oil?”
  • Me: “Yes, yes. The oil’s fine.”
  • Father: “How’s the clutch?”
  • Me: “Still working. Mostly.”
  • Father: “Good, good. Are you happy?”
  • Me: “Yeah, yeah. Things are good. School’s good. I’m happy.”
  • Father: “Okay. Here’s your mother.”

Yesterday was Father’s Day, and I think of what gift my own father might have liked to receive. Then I remember these conversations from my college days and I know that the only things my father cared about were that his children had good working cars and that they were happy.


Today is also the two-year anniversary of my blog. Writing it has made me very happy. Just writing at all makes me happy. I know my father would have liked to hear that. So, to honor him today, I am posting two things: a picture of my car, and evidence that I’m happy, which is the post that marked my debut into the blogging world, two years ago today.


It’s World Sauntering Day! (originally posted 20 June 2009)

Yesterday was supposedly World Sauntering Day (though some people seem to think the date has been moved to August 28th.) I knew nothing of this holiday until I saw it on my iGoogle homepage on the WikiHow gadget. My first question to myself was “Why did I install this gadget?” Then I asked “Did I saunter yesterday?” The answer to the first question was, “To have a daily reminder of the silliness of this world.” The answer to the second was, “No, but I did hike.” Does hiking count? I suppose it doesn’t because not once during the hike did I saunter. I trudged, plodded, bounded, skipped, jogged, dragged, strode, and marched, but not once did I wander, mosey, stroll, perambulate, or even saunter.

The Eskimos have a gazillion words for snow? Well, step aside because I believe English has a gazillion and one words for walk. Actually, neither language has quite the proliferation of vocabulary as urban legend likes to claim. The list of words for snow in various Eskimo languages can be attributed partly to their prolonged exposure to the stuff during much of the year, which means they have more time or inclination to perceive more subtle variations than we do, and thus need more words for it. However, English is no slouch in the vocabulary department. Certainly, there are English-speakers in Northern climes who speak of snow, slush, flurries, blizzards, sleet, freezing rain, hail, and flakes.Many of us also know the difference between good, packing snowball-fight snow and powder. So in this sense, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the two languages. Perhaps we both have more words for various types of frozen precipitation than, say, the Bantu languages of central Africa, but not to such a number that it deserves to be included in some Whacky Fact of the Week feature.

(Though, if you allow me a momentary tangent, there are some interesting words in Luganda, okusowola amongst others, that neither we nor our Eskimo neighbors seem to need, at least not in the form of one single, dedicated vocabulary word. Which I think is pretty neat.)

Another possible cause for a legendary number of words for snow in Eskimo languages is the fact that they are highly inflective languages. If you count all the inflections of one base word, then of course the list grows. It would be like counting blizzard and blizzards as two separate words rather than one word and its plural. English is not as morphologically prolific but it is, if I may be crude, a linguistic whore. We will borrow, beg, and steal any word from any language at any time in the past, present, or future. We’ll take it from any of them. This could help account for our alleged lexicon of a million words. We’ll also, incidentally, give it away to anyone as well, and not just random words either. We’ll sell the whole language to the highest bidder.

Could it help account for our apparent love for synonyms of the verb to walk? Without counting inflections of the verb (walks, walking, walked), there is quite a list of synonyms. Let’s look at the origins of a few of them. All etymologies are taken from etymonline.com. To start with, the word itself:

Walk – Old English. O.E. wealcan “to toss, roll,” and wealcian “to roll up, curl, muffle up,” from P.Gmc. *welk- (cf. O.N. valka “to drag about,” Dan. valke “to full,” M.Du. walken”to knead, press, full,” O.H.G. walchan “to knead,” Ger. walken “to full”), perhaps ult. from PIE base *wel- “to turn, bend, twist, roll” (see vulva). Meaning shifted in early M.E., perhaps from colloquial use of the O.E. word. “Rarely is there so specific a word as NE walk, clearly distinguished from both go and run” [Buck]. Meaning “to go away” is recorded from c.1460. Trans. meaning “to exercise a dog (or horse)” is from 1470. Walk-up in ref. to an apartment not accessible by elevator is attested from 1919 as an adj., 1925 as a noun.

And now, for some of my favorites:

Trudge – “to walk laboriously,” 1547, of unknown origin. The noun meaning “an act of trudging” is attested from 1835.

Plod – 1562, of uncertain origin, perhaps imitative of the sound of walking heavily or slowly. Plodding “diligent and dull” is attested from 1589.

Sashay – 1836, from mangled Anglicization of Fr. chassé “gliding step” (in square dancing), lit. “chased,” pp. of chasser “to chase,” from O.Fr. chacier “to hunt,” from V.L.*captiare (see capable, and cf. chasecatch). The noun is attested from 1900.

Mosey – 1829, Amer.Eng. slang, of unknown origin, perhaps related to British dial. mose about “go around in a dull, stupid way.” Or perhaps from Sp. vamos (see vamoose).

Rove – “to wander with no fixed destination,” 1536, possibly a Midlands dialectal variant of northern Eng. and Scottish rave “to wander, stray,” from M.E. raven, probably from O.N. rafa “to wander, rove.” Infl. by rover (q.v.). Earliest sense was “to shoot arrows at a mark selected at pleasure or at random” (1474).

Straggle – c.1400, “to wander from the proper path, to rove from one’s companions,” perhaps from a Scand. source (cf. dialectal Norw. stragla “to walk laboriously”), or a frequentative of straken “to move, go.” Specifically of soldiers from 1529.

Perambulate – 1568, from L. perambulatus, pp. of perambulare “to walk through, go through,” from per- “through” (see per) + ambulare “to walk.” Perambulator “one who perambulates” is first recorded 1611; sense of “baby carriage” is first recorded 1856; often colloquially shortened to pram.

And finally, the word that started it all…

Saunter – c.1475, santren “to muse, be in reverie,” of uncertain origin. Meaning “walk with a leisurely gait” is from 1667, and may be a different word entirely. Some suggest this word derives via Anglo-Fr. sauntrer (1338) from Fr. s’aventurer “to take risks,” but OED finds this “unlikely.” The noun meaning “a leisurely stroll” is recorded from 1828.

German, French, Latin, Spanish, Norse, and Misc…clearly, the British felt the need to borrow words for various types of walking. And it’s true that they love their walking. There is even a British Walking Federation. Go to Google and search for “British walks” and you’ll be met with more than a million sites dedicated to informing people on the best places to walk in Britain. Not jogging, or hiking, or cycling or driving. The British love a good stroll down a lane, or an after-dinner constitutional through town, or a bracing march through the countryside. Perhaps they loved it so much that they were in need of that many more words to describe minute differences between types of walking – words which all English speakers inherit, whether we love to walk or not.

Whatever the ultimate reason, we have a lot of words for the idea of transporting oneself using one’s legs, and so if you, like me, missed World Sauntering Day, then perhaps we should try to celebrate it on August 28th. In the meantime, I plan to try a little sashaying today, and maybe a little moseying tomorrow. Then I’ll check my thesaurus. That should get me through August with no problem.

14 thoughts on “We’ve secretly replaced their regular Bête Noire. Let’s see if they notice!

  1. Writing makes me very happy as well. I had stopped writing much of anything for over a decade then I started my blog this January. I didn’t realize how much I needed to write. I felt so incredibly joyful!

    Congrats on two years! Now I’m going to trudge downstairs and workout. :)

    • I’m glad you started your writing again! I know that I’ve been wanting to write for so long (for a wider audience than just myself! I don’t really count the journals that I’ve kept since I was 11.) and I got to the point when I just knew I’d never forgive myself if I got to the end of my life and hadn’t even tried. I love finding other people who have also not given up.

  2. Happy anniversary (I believe it’s called “blogoversary” or something to that extent)!
    Cute anecdote and wonderful way to use it.
    Last year, I had my (English) students talk a lot about the weather and all the interesting expressions and words. Next semester, I think we’ll pick up walking. That should be fun. :)

    • Thanks!

      Good luck with your walking lesson. My students were always amazed at how many ways you can walk in English :) I was briefly in England during this last vacation and I was once again struck by how much they love to walk. I’m glad I knew what they actually mean when they say “And then we’ll take a little walk along the sea after lunch.” That means I should wear sneakers and eat heartily because I’d be in for a 2-hour hike along the cliffs above the sea! :) (I’ll post pictures from that ‘little walk’ soon!).

  3. Happy Blogiversary and I hope that you are enjoying a little celebration on your trip.

    This was a great first post for As A Linguist. I particularly liked your citation of the British love of a good walk. It makes me remember the early days with my British husband. It took me some time to realize that whenever he said “let’s go for a walk” he really meant “hike.” They just don’t call it that. Eventually I worked out how important it was to establish the proper footwear for the “walk” he was contemplating.

    • Ha! See my response to M.Howalt above :) It’s so true, though, isn’t it? It’s the same with what I’ve come to call the ‘European relative kidnapping’. It starts off with “Well go to a restaurant to have a quick lunch and then we’ll just go take a look at this cute little church that you should see.” Translation: We’ll drive an hour to eat at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere because we can meet the other relatives there and have a two-hour family reunion with lots of wine. Then we’ll pile into the cars and travel for another hour at frightening speeds up a mountain on switchback roads with no guardrails to see a huge stone church that was built in honor of a random saint. We’ll then sit for a coffee and an ice cream at the obligatory church cafe. We’ll say goodbye, drive the two hours back to town, and stop at another restaurant – because it’s dinner time – where we will stay until 11pm, stuffed to the gills and drunkedy drunk drunk, before finally arriving back home 12 hours after leaving.

      So far, the European relative kidnapping pattern – with variations – holds true of the English (yes yes, I know – they’re not really ‘European’ ;) ), the Portuguese, the Slovenians, and the Turks.

    • Thanks! I do quite love my Lucille. She is the first car that I bought completely on my own (she became officially mine when I paid her off in March) and she sure is a fun, zippy little car to drive :)

      I am back home at last. I the day before yesterday. I think. Jet lag isn’t too bad this time around, but the trip home felt as long as the entire vacation did. It was a 24-hour odyssey that involved driving 3.5 hours to Paris, having a deceptively nice – but late – first flight, missing flights in London, and leading a pack of French tourists through Heathrow. How’s that for a teaser? ;)

  4. I hate tottering around in heels – so much so that I just don’t, but I do love to pootle around town… in my trainers/tekkies/sneakers!

  5. Pingback: For #100: Portrait of a polyglot. | As a Linguist…

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