Tag Archives: language

Un mercenario al que pagas bien no te deja en la estacada

I haven’t been writing any language learning related blog posts for quite some time now. It is not because there is nothing to write about, on the contrary I have a lot of ideas big and small in language learning department, but I’m too busy with technology/work and other things.

Anyhow I’m very actively learn Spanish language and the moment, keeping on hold French and Afrikaans and postponing desire to learn other languages ūüôā I’m about to receive (unless I failed my exam) my DELE B1 certificate. Subjectively I can say that my writing capability still requires a lot of work as well as speaking lacks control of tense system though I can say a lot using limited amount of tenses and doing a lot of mistakes ūüôā

My learning strategy includes loads of input from day-0 (listening, reading) and I’m currently reading “La carta esf√©rica” by¬†Arturo P√©rez-Reverte¬†and in this book I stumbled upon the following idiomatic expression –¬†“dejar a alguien en la estacada”. Here is the passage from the book:

Adem√°s, siempre prefer√≠ contratar a asalariados eficientes antes que a voluntarios entusiastas… Un mercenario¬†al que pagas bien no te deja en la estacada.

P√©rez-Reverte, Arturo. La carta esf√©rica (Spanish Edition) (Kindle Location 3386). Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial Espa√Īa. Kindle Edition.

So I decided to read up a bit on the phrase and below you may find what I learnt. Disclaimer: most of the post talks about etymologies of phrases/words and these are frequently contested, I¬† have to warn you that I didn’t do rigorous scientific check/verification and you are more than welcome do double check these theories. ūüôā

I quickly found English equivalent for this expression – “to leave someone in the lurch”, and while meaning was clear both expressions required some extra checks in dictionary to understand where they came from. So basic modern meaning of both expressions is to abandon someone in difficult situation.

Let’s start from the Spanish one – “dejar a alguien en la estacada” if you are in a mood for definition of meaning in Spanish here you are – “La expresi√≥n¬†‚ÄėDejar a alguien en la estacada‚Äô¬†es com√ļnmente utilizada para se√Īalar cuando a una persona se la ha dejado abandonada a su suerte en una situaci√≥n que podr√≠a ser peligrosa, apurada o de dif√≠cil soluci√≥n, no brind√°ndole la ayuda o auxilio que precisa” (source). But what is this “estacada” where our troubled person left? It actually comes from medieval jousting tournaments, martial game¬†based on the military use of the lance by heavy cavalry.

Tournament between Henry II and Lorges, 16th century

Tournament between Henry II and Lorges, 16th century

Tournament field for this competition was fenced by “estacas” – wooden posts which formed sort of palisade and land within this fence was called “estacada” (tournament’s arena sort of). During tournaments, after competition was over only knight which felt from his horse (often heavily wounded) left on that land and victorious knight used to leave arena without helping or paying attention to one which stayed on the field. From this takes origin phrase “dejar a alguien en la estacada” which in modern language used to refer to “leaving someone in difficult or dangerous situation”.

What about English version? As you can see Spanish idiom has rather military origin and its English equivalent despite having similar meaning in modern usage has completely different origins. It also revolves around of the place where you left the troubled person – “lurch”. And honestly I had to look it up as I haven’t had an idea about what it could be. Dictionaries list number of meanings of which, knowing sense of the phrase, you may guess that one which we have in the phrase “to leave someone in the lurch” is this:

“a decisive defeat in which an opponent wins a game by more than double the defeated player’s score especially in¬†cribbage

I also found interesting blog post which offers more interesting and fitting options for origins of lurch, such as:

1. Lurch¬†is a noun that originated from lich – the Old English word for corpse. Lych-gates were the roofed churchyard entrances that adjoin many old English churches and are the appointed place for coffins to be left when waiting for the clergyman to arrive to conduct a funeral service. Hence ‘left in the lych/lurch’ supposed to mean “left in a quite difficult situation”…

Lychgate at the Church of St. James the Less, Philadelphia

Lychgate at the Church of St. James the Less, Philadelphia

2. Second theory states that jilted brides would be ‘left in the lurch’ when the errant bridegroom failed to appear for a wedding.

Those two seems to be apt/interesting yet only listed as suggested explanations with no evidence to support them.

And while most of the dictionaries link the lurch with losing/bad situation in cribbage¬†aforementioned blog post mentioned above suggests that word/phrase “originates from the French board game of¬†lourche¬†or¬†lurch, which was similar to backgammon and was last played in the 17th century (the rules having now been lost). Players suffered a lurch if they were left in a hopeless position from which they couldn’t win the game.” But again, looking at illustration they have there game board looks similar to the one for cribbage.

And after looking at both Spanish and English idioms which convey one idea yet have different origins I realized that both cribbage board and jousting tournament field have something in common…

Modern 120-hole cribbage board

Modern 120-hole cribbage board

Giovanni Ferri, Saracen joust in Piazza Navona in the 25th of February 1634 (Seventeenth century)

Giovanni Ferri, Saracen joust in Piazza Navona in the 25th of February 1634 (Seventeenth century)

Don’t you think?

Russian version anyone? If you interested in a Russian equivalent of “dejar a alguien en la estacada” / “leave someone in the lurch” I think it will be “–Ī—Ä–ĺ—Ā–ł—ā—Ć –Ĺ–į –Ņ—Ä–ĺ–ł–∑–≤–ĺ–Ľ —Ā—É–ī—Ć–Ī—č”, phrase which literal translation goes as “to leave someone to the¬†arbitrariness of fate”… As you can see yet again completely different phrase to convey the same idea. Russian phrase centered around “fate” which is blind and not in a sense of unbiased Themis¬†(known to Russian speakers as “–§–Ķ–ľ–ł–ī–į” [Femida] and aka Justitia aka Lady Justice), but rather blind in its cruel¬†arbitrariness. So to leave on¬† to the¬†arbitrariness of fate would be leaving vulnerable person in really difficult situation.


A Little Book of Language by David Crystal

A Little Book of LanguageA Little Book of Language by David Crystal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just done listening audio edition of this book and this is just a little comment/review about it.

Initially because of the word “little” in the title and number of opening chapters talking about how children develop their language abilities I was slightly concerned that I picked a wrong buck which going to talk exclusively about children speech development ūüôā But it turn out that this “little” book give all encompassing overview of all things language starting from children speech development and touching on all possible things language related: applied linguistics, sociolinguistics, forensic linguistics, etymology, dictionaries, endangered languages and languages revival, dialects and regionalisms, speech therapy so it is really Little book of Language.

In case you are not linguistics/language geek who wants to know everything about language you may find such book useful for example if you need what facet/aspect of language/linguistics you are interested to learn more about.

I guess I’m going to add more David Crystal‘s books on my ever growing to read/to listen list, and I think it is high time to finally read/listen something by Naom Chomsky as his books were on my to do list way too long ūüôā

View all my reviews


Nelson Mandela on language

Being keen language learner and somewhat amateur linguist I just started quite interesting course on edx.org“Language Revival: Securing the Future of Endangered Languages”. This course offered by University of Adelaide and delivered by¬†Ghil’ad Zuckermann and¬†Rob Amery. Course promises interesting overview of such things as¬†linguicide (language killing) and¬†glottophagy (language eating) and most importantly language reclamation as response to that (why and how). Course will use case studies of Hebrew and Kaurna languages. I just started with course materials but already found it very interesting starting from palimpsest as a metaphor for language and the quote of 1st South African president Nelson Mandela which I wanted to jot down here in this post. Here is the quote:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Nelson Mandela

This is proper way to look at the language which sometimes can be forgotten in the world dominated by some “dialect(s) with an army and navy”.

By the way Nelson Mandela¬†learned Afrikaans during his time imprisoned in Robben Island. There is another his quote on language I found, this one from his book “Long Walk to Freedom” worth mentioning here:

‚ÄúWithout language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savor their songs.‚ÄĚ

Nelson Mandela


Does a broader vocabulary allow you to think faster?

Answer by Marc Ettlinger:


Language has been called a Cognitive or Cultural Tool, a description that succinctly summarizes the research on the effects of language on cognition and the mind.\nThis research also answers your question with a definitive Yes: A broader vocabulary can allow you to think faster. Assigning a label, which is basically what a word is, to a concept allows it to be used more easily in your brain.

Consider the evidence:

One study looked at differences in counting ability and counting memory between speakers of English and speakers of Piraha. The Piraha language is notable for many things, one of which is its lack of any words for numbers or counting. What they found is that the Piraha can still recognize quantities – not surprising. However, their memory for quantities was worse than English speakers’.

Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirah√£ language and cognitionMichael C. Frank,Daniel L. Everett, Evelina Fedorenko, Edward Gibson


Dan Everett with the Piraha

This is one of many cross-linguistic studies of how cognition is different between speakers of different languages. Another example is a comparison of English speakers and speakers of a language called Guugu Yimithirr (yes, real) which differs in its lexicalization of space. English speakers (e.g., me, possibly you) can use left and right with reference to the speaker itself (i.e., indexical). Guugu Yimithirr speakers use cardinal directions (North, South) even to speak about events on a small spatial scale.

This difference affects spatial cognition. Perhaps obviously, Guugu Yimithirr speakers are better at orienting themselves in open space since they must constantly be aware of where North is. Annecdotally, they are better than homing pigeons in orienting themselves to the compass absent any cues.

Conversely, English speakers are far better at a task that involves completing a maze and arranging shapes then turning around to face another direction and doing the same thing. Thus, the presence of indexical direction words (left, right) improves our ability to think about space indexically.

Language and SpaceStephen Levinson


Guugu Yimithirr kids pointing cardinally

Not only is the existence of a word important, but so too is how easily you can access it.

In another study, based on Daniel Oppenheimer’s work on processing fluency, the researchers looked at short term stock price fluctuations and its relationship to the stock ticker symbol (e.g., MSFT for Microsoft, FB for facebook). What they found is that stocks with symbols that were easier to say did better imediately after IPO.

Predicting short-term stock fluctuations by using processing fluencyAdam L. Alter and Daniel M. Oppenheimer

And riffing off that general idea, I worked with some colleagues looking at the difference in hard-to-pronounce and easy-to-pronounce plural words (e.g., keys as easy versus busses as hard). What we found is that the plurality of objects for easy-to-pronounce plurals was remembered better (Learning to remember by learning to speak by Marc Ettlinger on Cog Blog)

Learning to Remember by Learning to SpeakMarc Ettlinger, Jennifer Lanter and Craig VanPay


Children showing us what they know about one and many

One thing to note: most of what I’m talking about here is accuracy and you’re talking about speed. In cog sci, the two are often interchangable because of a well-known speed-accuracy trade-off , Wickelgren77

What may be surprising is how quickly these effects begin to happen. Recent research has shown that when learning a new word (in your native language), the new word begins to affect cognitive processing a quickly as a day later. This is particularly true if you’ve had a chance to sleep on it.

Learning and Consolidation of Novel Spoken WordsMatthew H. Davis, Anna Maria Di Betta, Mark J. E. Macdonald, and  M. Gareth Gaskell


The effects of sleep on the consolidation of novel words


Ultimately, your question serves as a useful companion to this other Quora question: Does an increased vocabulary change the way you think?

In answering, I suggested (Marc Ettlinger’s answer) that there is some effect of an increase vocabulary, but “change the way you think” is a bit of an extreme way to put it; vocabulary doesn’t serve as a straight jacket for what you can and cannot conceive of. Almost every invention was an idea before it was a word, for example.

But there is definitely an effect, as the answer to your question shows.\nSo, language can serve as a cognitive tool, improving your ability to think about the things language labels.


Does a broader vocabulary allow you to think faster?