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Do Any Languages Besides English Have Homophones?

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Does any language besides English have homophones?

Ben Waggoner:

There’s the old joke about the Spaniard who had invited an American to his home, but his English wasn’t very good, so he quickly looked up the English equivalents for the Spanish words that he wanted to say. . . and when his guest came through the door, the Spaniard smiled and said, “Between, and drink a chair!”

The joke is that the poor Spanish gent meant to say, “Come in, and have a seat!”—¡Entre, y tome una silla!—but he mixed up the homophones entre, meaning "between," and entre, the polite, third person singular imperative of entrar, which means "to enter.” (The other part of the joke is that tomar can mean either “to take” or “to drink”; that’s not so much a homophone as a word with a bit of a lexical spread.)

A bit of Wiktionary work to refresh my memory of Russian yielded мой, moj, which means either “my [masc.]” or “wash!” [2nd person sg. imperative of мыть]. From the same stem we get мыло, mylo, which means either “soap” or “it [neut.] washed” [neuter sg. past of мыть]. And then there’s мат, mat, which can mean either “checkmate” or “curse words; obscenities”—the first is borrowed from Persian (as is “checkmate”, from shah mat, “the king is dead”), while the second comes from the almost-but-not-quite-homophone мать, “mother.” The idiom for “to use profanity” (ругаться матом) etymologically means “to say obscene things about someone’s mother.”

Then there’s the most famous Russian homophone, мир, mir, meaning “peace” or “world.” They were distinguished in spelling before 1920, with the word for “world” spelled мір, but the Soviet spelling reforms made them indistinguishable, as in Мир миру, mir miru, “peace to the world!,” a common Soviet slogan. (Purely to pad this answer out, I might add that мир in the sense of “peace” may go back to the Indo-Iranian god of contracts and social order, Mithra. Or so some have argued. I’ve also seen it said that both мир and Mithra come from a PIE root meaning “to bind”, *mei-.)

Finally, I looked up a few homophones in Old Norse, with which I have a passing familiarity:

  • afl: “strength” or “hearth of a forge”
  • fastr: “firm; fixed” or “prey that a bear drags back to its den”
  • mál: “language; speech” (also “a matter for discussion”) or “measurement; interval of time” OR “decorative metal inlay”
  • nema: “except; unless” or “to take; to learn”
  • reiða: “to carry” or “outfit; equipment”
  • valr: “hawk” or “those killed in battle”
  • veita: “to give; to offer” or “to dig a ditch; to make a watercourse”

This could be a plot point in Vikings. Imagine Ragnar shouting “Damn it, Floki, I told you that what we had to discuss was offering the battle-slain to Odin by taking them and carrying them firmly! Why the hell are you waiting for an interval to learn to dig a water-ditch for a hawk’s outfit in a bear’s den?”

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Big Questions
How Are Royal Babies Named?
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Jack Taylor, Getty Images

After much anticipation, England's royal family has finally received a tiny new addition. The birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's second son was confirmed by Kensington Palace on April 23, but the name of the royal newborn has yet to be announced. For the heir to the British throne and his wife, choosing a name for their third child—who is already fifth in line to the throne—likely won't be as easy as flipping through a baby name book; it's tradition for royals to select names that honor important figures from British history.

According to ABC WJLA, selecting three or four names is typical when naming a royal baby. Will and Kate followed this unwritten rule when naming their first child, George Alexander Louis, and their second, Charlotte Elizabeth Diana. Each name is an opportunity to pay homage to a different British royal who came before them. Some royal monikers have less savory connotations (Prince Harry's given name, Henry, is reminiscent of a certain wife-beheading monarch), but typically royal babies are named for people who held a significant and honorable spot in the family tree.

Because there's a limited pool of honorable monarchs from which to choose, placing bets on the royal baby name as the due date approaches has become a popular British pastime. One name that keeps cropping up this time around is James; the original King James ruled in the early 17th century, and it has been 330 years since a monarch named James wore the crown.

If the royal family does go with James for the first name of their youngest son, that still leaves at least a couple of slots to be filled. So far, the couple has stuck with three names each for their children, but there doesn't seem to be a limit; Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne to George VI in 1936, shouldered the full name of Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?
CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images
CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images

On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 92 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 9, 2018, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or "colours"—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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