Maximum grammar geekery, or What on earth is a gerund, anyway?!

Has it ever occurred to you that lots of the terminology for Latin grammar is what it does? It’s really helpful when trying to explain it.

Consider the Present Participle. The word ‘present’ is itself formed from a present participle in Latin, praesens, meaning present, at hand, prompt etc. And the present participle means something that is happening now, in the present, promptly if you will. Brilliant! But what I really like is that it looks like the Latin form – it’s last three letters, at least. The -ent of ‘present’ resembles the -ens of the Latin form, which corresponds in turn to the -ing of the English form, eg doing – they all have ‘n’ in the middle of the three letters! Am I taking this a bit far? I usually draw my students a little memorial diagram to highlight the ‘n’ thing, like this:



The present participle: does what it is! (Also, one of the more dull images of all time, but this is a post about Latin grammatical terminology. There’s a funny image further down.)

Let us consider next the Perfect tense. The word ‘perfect’ is itself formed from a perfect participle, perfectus, which means finished, ie the meaning of the perfect tense, an action finished, by definition, in the past. Genius!

And the Imperfect tense? Well, that means ‘not perfect’, an action that was ongoing in the past, not finished  – she was doing her homework (imperfect tense; as yet unfinished) when the dog ate it (perfect tense; it’s finished now, isn’t it?).

How about tricksier stuff, like the Gerund. ‘The whaaaaa?’ I hear you cry. Don’t panic! It’s a verbal noun — a noun formed from a verb, like the words running or swimming and so on when used in sentences like ‘running is my passion’, ‘swimming makes me happy’. The word gerund comes from the Latin verb gero (in its gerund form, of course) which  is essentially a verb of doing stuff, getting on with things. One of its meanings is to wage war. That’s getting on with stuff if ever anything was. And what does the gerund mean? Well, it generally expresses the idea of getting on with something. There are some eminent examples of gerunds in mottos, such as the Pope’s own motto, miserando atque eligendo, but also the commonly used phrase modus operandi, meaning a method of doing something, getting something done, if you will.


Geoffrey Willans’ and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth’s imagining of the Gerund and Gerundive; image from here

Its partner in grammar crimes against student comprehension is the much maligned Gerundive. I always feel quite sorry for the gerundive. A colleague once made a matching fluffy gerund and gerundive pair of little creatures for her classroom to cheer her pupils up. Now I think of it, the gerundive always looked by far the more mischievous of the two. It essentially means the same thing as the gerund but is more adjectival and passive, bless it – though only in a grammatical sense, as it usually has an even stronger sense of something needing to be got on with. Take one of my favourite examples, nunc est bibendum. This means ‘now is the time for drinking needing to be done‘. See how this cheeky little adjective is not actually describing anything, and despite being passive, translates better here as active. In fact, it usually translates better into English as active, so much so that teachers and students alike often ignore its passivity altogether, or confuse it with its fluffy gerund sibling. So many reasons for students to feel aggrieved towards it, now I come to think of it…. To explain its form, ‘gerundive’ has the Latin adjectival ending -ivum (which you can also see in the word ‘adjective’. I love this stuff!), so it is an adjective itself. Like I say, I love this stuff!

Here are some more of my favourite gerundives from everyday life:

  1. My own middle name, Amanda, she who ought to be loved;
  2. The marvellous Miranda, she who ought to be marvelled at (not to be confused with verandah, something which ought to be sat on when it’s sunny. I used to confuse these words when I was little);
  3. Agenda, (usually boring) things which ought to be done.

As usual, I could go on and on with all this — I haven’t even touched on the cases! — but I will leave it there for now. Happy grammaring!



Church Latin? It’s, ahem, all Greek to me…

My husband and I decided a couple of years ago that we would challenge ourselves to visit every Anglican cathedral in England. I like church history, and churches, and my husband likes that churches are pretty good places for small children to explore safely. We have subsequently visited some of the most beautiful places and buildings in the country and both developed a pedantry around use of the word aisle when nave is meant. As well as the splendour of the buildings, there is plenty of opportunity for exploring language since the church is a vast repository of fascinating and arcane words.

When is a cathedral not a cathedral? When it’s a chair!

First word on my list, then, is Cathedral. We tend to think of Latin as being the language of the church, but this word came into Latin from Greek, as you might have guessed from the very un-Latin presence of a ‘th’ in its middle. Greek — and Latin —  ‘cathedra’ means simply ‘chair’. Lewis and Short (my wonderful Latin dictionary) gives a bit more detail: ‘a chair, a stool, esp. one furnished with cushions and supports for women, an arm chair‘, and then goes on to mention it as a bishop’s chair, amongst other definitions. The chair itself is central to the cathedral since the cathedral is the ‘seat’ of the bishop. My marvellous guide book, The Cathedrals of England, by Batsford and Fry, describes Southwell before it was elevated to cathedral status as ‘the bishop of York’s footstool’, back when it was merely a lowly Minster.


In some cathedrals you are hard pushed to spot the cathedra amongst all the other fascinating paraphernalia, but Chelmsford makes much of its beautiful greenish chair of Westmorland slate. Picture from here.

More see, bishop?

The cathedral is also in English home to the ‘see’ of the bishop, which sounds a bit like seat, but refers more to the job of the bishop.

Bishop sounds English, doesn’t it? What could be more English than taking tea with a bishop? Well, it is a very anglicised word, that’s for sure, but its roots are again Greek. Episcopos is the Greek for bishop, and it means ‘the one who looks out’ — like in periscope or telescope. One of the earliest English christian church leaders was a chap called Benedict Biscop. His name gives us a clue as to how the Greek word episcopos became English bishop. It lost its initial ‘e’, hardened its new initial ‘p’ to ‘b’ and softened its ‘sc’ to ‘sh’. Obvious, really.

But what does a bishop do? Looks out from their seat (cathedra!) over their see — which sounds a lot like seat! — but is to do with looking! — onto their diocese. Whoa, there! What’s a diocese?

What’s a Diocese, sis?

This word also comes to Latin via Greek. Cicero used ‘dioecesis’ to mean an area under a governor’s jurisdiction (I know this from its dictionary entry in Lewis and Short rather than an encyclopaedic knowledge of Cicero, I’m sorry to have to admit). It became an area under a bishop’s jurisdiction with the advent of Christianity. In case you are interested, its Greek roots are ‘di’ (preposition meaning ‘through’) + ‘oikos’ (noun meaning ‘house’), creating ‘dioikein’ meaning ‘to keep house’ or ‘administer’. Why it is pronounced to rhyme with sis is anyone’s guess! Fascinatingly, ‘oikos’ also crops up in the English word ‘economy’, which is also all about keeping your house in order.

Ship ahoy!

Ely, one of the most splendid cathedrals in the country, rising ineffably on its improbable hill from the murky flats of East Anglia, is known as the Ship of the Fens. This word, ship, crops up again in church terminology in the word nave. As I said at the beginning, aficionados of church architecture get a little sweaty about the word nave, because it is not an aisle!! The nave is the main central space up the length of a church. It comes from the Latin ‘navis’, which means ‘ship’. Clearly all churches are ships of faith, steering a course through high seas of unbelievers and allegory, disembarking souls of faithful parishioners at their heavenly destination. The tradition of seeing the Church as a ship is as ancient as the Church itself, as far as I can tell from a quick Google.


The Ship of the Fens: Ely Cathedral on its improbable hill. Photo credit P. Wood.

Aisle have two of those flying ships!

If the nave is not an aisle, then what is? Well, there are usually two aisles in a church, one to the north and one to the south of the nave. They are the wings of the ship! Aisle comes via French from the Latin for wing, ‘ala’. My Shorter OED (Volume 1) tells me (via the abbreviation ‘conf.’) that it is spelt funny on account of someone once upon a time having confused it with with the word ‘isle’, island, whilst simultaneously thinking about the French world ‘aile’, meaning ‘wing’.

I really could go on and on with this subject — there’s the font (Latin ‘fons’, a spring), the altar (Latin ‘altus’, high), the transept, the triforium and clerestory and the word church itself to name a few, but I think I might save those for another fascinating instalment of ‘Charlie Loves Dictionaries!’


Did Homer invent robots?

Everytime I read Homer I fall in love a little bit more. Here I shall share some excerpts from one of my favourite passages from The Iliad (as translated by E.V. Rieu, in the updated version by Peter Jones with D.C.H. Rieu).

To set the scene, Thetis has gone to Hephaestus to ask him to make a replacement set of armour for her son Achilles. Most characters in Homer have a formulaic nick name — you’ve possibly heard the one about rosy-fingered Dawn — but consider also the wine dark sea, ox-eyed Lady Hera. These names indicate something of the appearance of the subject but not much more. We are left to make up our own minds on the defining characteristics from the behaviour of the individuals in question (though on the wine-dark sea, see this wonderful piece on colours by Caroline Lawrence). In the same way, the poet gives away nothing of the skill of Hephaestus in his nick name – he is merely ‘the famous lame god’. However, after these descriptions of the wonders of Hephaestus’ workshop, no one can be in any doubt:

Thetis found Hephaestus hard at work and sweating as he bustled about at the bellows in his forge. He was making a set of twenty tripods to stand round the walls of his well-built hall. He had fitted golden wheels to all their feet so that they could run off to a meeting of the gods and return home again, all self-propelled — an amazing sight.  (Iliad 18.370-379)

One wonders what the twenty tripods were up to at the meeting of the gods, and whether or not anyone saw them travelling there under their own steam… Anyway! Thirty or so lines on and we are offered this next marvel:

Waiting-women hurried along to help their master. They were made of gold, but looked like real girls and could not only speak and use their limbs but were also endowed with intelligence and had learned their skills from the immortal gods. While they scurried round to support their lord, Hephaestus moved unsteadily to where Thetis was seated. (Iliad 18.418-422)

Although it does not say that Hephaestus made them himself, the implication is clear: The famous lame god has invented robots, and hired the other gods to teach them useful skills, as well as compassion and general helpfulness.

Finally, in case any reader has glossed over those first miraculous creations, Homer offers us a third: Hephaestus also appears to have invented voice-controlled intelligent bellows to aid him in his work.

Hephaestus went back to his forge, where he turned the bellows on the fire and told them to get to work. The bellows — there were twenty of them — blew through the nozzles and gave healthy blasts from different directions, fast or slow to suit the needs of the busy blacksmith, depending on the stage the work had reached. (Iliad 18.468-473)

The famous lame god, indeed!

If you know of any robots from literature earlier than Homer, please do let me know in the comments.