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11 Examples of the Odd Dialect Called 'EU English'

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Every profession has its in-group ways of using language, but not every profession requires native speakers of many different languages to communicate with each other every day.

The European Union requires just this, and the people who work there, hashing out, drafting, and translating documents use English in a very particular way. A 2013 EU report outlined some of the unusual qualities of EU English, pointing out that, “over the years, the European institutions have developed a vocabulary that differs from that of any recognised form of English.”

Much of that unrecognizable vocabulary is the result of translations or non-native-speaker errors that make a certain kind of sense, but depart from the usual English. Because documents in the EU influence the way other documents are drafted as well as the way discussions proceed, the unusual vocabulary items tend to spread around until they are part of the general professional jargon. Here are 11 examples of words used in EU documents in an odd new way. 

1. TO PRECISE/PRECISION 

The Committee urges the Commission ... to precise which period before confinement is meant.

Without further precisions, this could lead to support for poorly justified financial instruments.

Precise is sometimes used in EU documents as a verb to mean "make precise," or specify. It is also used in this sense as a noun, precision, which is supposed to mean "that which is used to make things precise"—in other words, details or specifications.

2. DISPOSE OF

The Commission may not be able to assess the reliability of the data provided by Member States and may not dispose of independent information sources.

There is an emerging tendency to use dispose of not to mean "get rid of," but to have or possess. This strange usage probably comes from the fact that we say to have at one’s disposal to mean "have free use of." In regular English it is not possible to transform that phrase into dispose of in this way.

3. IMPORTANT

The annual accounts give detailed information on the financial corrections confirmed, implemented and to be implemented and explain the reasons for which an important amount is still to be implemented.

Important is sometimes used to mean large or significant. Something that is significant can be important, but important carries more connotations of being crucial or having an effect on things than significant does. It’s a subtle distinction that a non-native speaker really can’t be blamed for not having full control over. 

4. OPPORTUNITY

The Court questioned the opportunity of introducing these measures in such an uncertain economic climate.

Here opportunity is used to mean "the quality of being opportune," or "opportuneness." According to the raw rules of word formation, there’s no reason it shouldn’t mean that, but we already have a set meaning for opportunity—favorable circumstances or a chance for success. 

5. PUNCTUAL

The management of the above mentioned feed sectors is subject to close co-operation with the Member States through regular (generally monthly) meetings of the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, section on Animal Nutrition, and punctual expert groups meetings where appropriate.

Punctual should be able to mean "point by point," or "from time to time," as it does in German and other European languages. But it in English we only use it in the sense of "arriving at the agreed-upon time." In EU documents it is used to mean occasional or periodic. 

6. ACTUAL

This appropriation is intended to cover basic salaries of the staff, as listed in the attached table, based on the actual regulations and on the probable adjustments.

Actual is famous for being one of those "false friend" words. It looks like the same word in French (or German or Spanish) but means something different in English. In English it means real or existing, while in other languages it means current. In EU documents in takes on the European meaning.

7. EVENTUAL

They both opposed an eventual imposition of anti-dumping measures as they considered that it could lead to a cessation of imports of the product concerned from the PRC79.

Another false friend, we take eventual to mean "happening at some point in the future," while in other languages it means possible. The eventual imposition referred to here is a possibility, not a plan.

8. EXPERTISES

Priority should be given to the ORs’ health system, training and education in order to optimise local human resources and expertises as greatest potential drivers of growth in the ORs83.

Expertise is normally a mass noun that doesn’t have a plural form: we don’t say expertises but areas of expertise. In EU English, however, it often shows up in the plural. It’s always good to have more expertises than you need.

9. PLANIFICATION 

Simplified procedures and better planification should make it possible to even out the caseload under FP6, improving internal control and speeding up processes.

Planification shows up a lot in EU English. It assumes the existence of an unusual verb planify, meaning something like plan. Basically, planification is planning, but longer.

10. COMITOLOGY

The Commission must draft new rules setting out the powers and workings of the bodies replacing the Committees in the framework of the now-abolished comitology procedure, to ensure that the new system operates properly.

The report states that there are 1253 instances of this word in an EU document database but “not only does the word not exist outside the EU institutions … it is formed from a misspelt stem (committee has two m’s and two t’s) and a suffix that means something quite different (-ology/-logy means 'the science of' or 'the study of'). It is therefore highly unlikely that an outsider would be able to deduce its meaning, even in context.” It means something like "having to do with committees."

11. ACTORNESS

 EU Actorness in International Affairs: The Case of EULEX Mission in Kosovo, Perspectives on European Politics and Society.

Another EU-specific invention, actorness means something like "the quality of being a party which is taking an action." Though it makes for strange English, it is a rather more efficient way to express a concept that the EU discusses a lot.

 [h/t: Fun language podcast The Allusionist]

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ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.

1. SHE KNEW OVER 1000 SIGNS.

Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.

2. SHE CHANGED WHAT WE KNEW ABOUT LANGUAGE.

Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.

3. SHE WASN'T THE ONLY APE WHO SIGNED.

Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.

4. SHE HAD FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.

5. SHE WAS A LOVING CAT MOM.

Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.

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iStock
The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases
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iStock

Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?

1. BY THE SAME TOKEN

Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”

2. GET ON A SOAPBOX

1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
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The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.

3. TOMFOOLERY

The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.

4. GO BANANAS

chimp eating banana
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The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”

5. RUN OF THE MILL

If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.

6. READ THE RIOT ACT

The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.

7. HANDS DOWN

Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.

8. SILVER LINING

The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.

9. HAVE YOUR WORK CUT OUT

The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!

10. THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.

11. THE WHOLE SHEBANG

The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.

12. PUSH THE ENVELOPE

Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.

13. CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE

We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.

14. THE ACID TEST

Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.

15. GO HAYWIRE

What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.

16. CALLED ON THE CARPET

Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”

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