The Schwa: A Native Speaker Feature

The schwa sound is a revelation that comes to learners of English as they progress to higher levels. Considered as a ‘native speaker feature’, it helps both pronunciation and understanding by changing the stress of words and sentence.

Often referred to as a reduced, weak or unstressed sound, the schwa doesn’t involve the lips or tongue, and is merely the noise emitted when we engage the vocal cords. However, it is an essential concept to grasp for any learner of English as a foreign language.

The Schwa and Stress

Being a stress-timed language, English relies on the schwa sound to avoid sounding robotic with overuse of stress, or sounding monotone through under use of stress. To achieve anything like native level speaking skills, the use of the schwa is essential.

When it comes to words being stressed or unstressed, generally speaking, words in English can be divided up into two groups:

Stressed: nouns, main verbs, adjectives and adverbs. These communicate the main message of the sentence and are therefore stressed.

Unstressed: auxiliary verbs, pronouns, articles, linkers and prepositions. These are often referred to as grammar words and are, in general, unstressed.

“We are Going to the Shops?”: Looking at the example sentence of “we are going to the shops”, the words marked in bold are the ones that would use the schwa sound, being an auxiliary verb, a preposition and an article respectively. The other words are the ones that are necessary to communicate the main message. Essentially, they could stand alone and the message would still get across: “we going shops”. Many elementary learners of English would use this exact structure, as would young children learning to speak their mother tongue.  However, grammatically this is incorrect.

Pronunciation, Understanding and Production

As already stated, grasping the use of the schwa will not only work towards achieving more native-like speech skills, but will also improve understanding. In turn, having more advanced understanding skills will lead to more accurate production.

Before understanding the use of the schwa, learners of English often just don’t hear it in sentences, and therefore reproduce those sentences incorrectly, as in the example given above. Other examples could be:

  • What are you talking about?  –  What you talking about?
  • They are arriving tomorrow  –  They arriving tomorrow
  • Come to my house – Come my house
  • I like the black one – I like the black one

The top two examples omit the auxiliary verb, the third drops the preposition and the fourth misses out the article.

More to Explore

There is a lot more to explore about the schwa, such as it being used for clusters of letters and also for stressed and unstressed syllables, but as a first insight the general concept of its use with stress in a sentence is key. Another angle of the schwa to look at would be its use in different accents as some use stress in different ways.

British English versus American English

American English is the form of English used in the United States.

British English is the form of English used in the United Kingdom and the rest of the British Isles. It includes all English dialects used within the British Isles.

American English in its written form is standardized across the U.S. (and in schools abroad specializing in American English). Though not devoid of regional variations, particularly in pronunciation and vernacular vocabulary, American speech is somewhat uniform throughout the country, largely due to the influence of mass communication and geographical and social mobility in the United States. After the American Civil War, the settlement of the western territories by migrants from the Eastern U.S. led to dialect mixing and leveling, so that regional dialects are most strongly differentiated along the Eastern seaboard. The General American accent and dialect (sometimes called ‘Standard Midwestern’), often used by newscasters, is traditionally regarded as the unofficial standard for American English.

British English has a reasonable degree of uniformity in its formal written form, which, as taught in schools, is largely the same as in the rest of the English-speaking world (except North America). On the other hand, the forms of spoken English – dialects, accents and vocabulary – used across the British Isles vary considerably more than in most other English-speaking areas of the world, even more so than in the United States, due to a much longer history of dialect development in the English speaking areas of Great Britain and Ireland. Dialects and accents vary, not only between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales (which constitute the United Kingdom), plus the Republic of Ireland, but also within these individual countries. There are also differences in the English spoken by different socio-economic groups in any particular region. Received Pronunciation (RP) (also referred to as BBC English or Queen’s English) has traditionally been regarded as ‘proper English’ – ‘the educated spoken English of south-east England’. The BBC and other broadcasters now intentionally use a mix of presenters with a variety of British accents and dialects, and the concept of ‘proper English’ is now far less prevalent.

British and American English are the reference norms for English as spoken, written, and taught in the rest of the world; for instance, the English-speaking members of the Commonwealth of Nations often (if not usually) closely follow British orthography, and many new Americanisms quickly become familiar outside of the United States. Although the dialects of English used in the former British Empire are often, to various extents, fairly close to standard British English, most of the countries concerned have developed their own unique dialects, particularly with respect to pronunciation, idioms, and vocabulary; chief among them are, at least for number of speakers, Australian English and Canadian English.

Idioms

A number of English idioms that have essentially the same meaning show lexical differences between the British and the American version; for instance:

British – American
not touch something with a bargepole – not touch something with a ten-foot pole
sweep under the carpet – sweep under the rug
touch wood – knock on wood
throw a spanner -throw a (monkey) wrench
tuppence worth also two pennies’ worth, two pence worth or two pennyworth) – two cents’ worth
skeleton in the cupboard – skeleton in the closet
a home from home -a home away from home
blow one’s trumpet – blow (or toot) one’s horn
storm in a teacup – tempest in a teapot
a drop in the ocean – a drop in the bucket
flogging a dead horse – beating a dead horse
In some cases the “American” variant is also used in British English, or vice versa.

Vocabulary

British – American
autumn – fall
aerial – antenna
bank note – bill
barrister – lawyer
bill (restaurant) -check
biscuit – cookie
bonnet (car) – hood
boot (car) – truck
chips – French fries
cooker – stove
crossroad – intersection
curtains – drapes
dustbin – garbage can
engine – motor
film -movie
flat – apartment
football – soccer
garden – yard
handbag – purse
holiday – vacation
jumper – sweater
lift – elevator
to let – to rent
lorry – truck
metro, underground, tube – subway
nappy – diaper
pavement – sidewalk
petrol – gas, gasoline
post – mail
postcode – zip code
queue – line
railway – railroad
solicitor – attorney
tap – faucet
taxi – cab
trousers – pants
wardrobe – closet
windscreen – windshield

Spelling

British – American
colour – color
favourite – favorite
honour – honor
analyse – analyze
criticise – criticize
memorise – memorize
enrolment – enrollment
fulfil – fulfill
skilful – skillful
centre – center
metre – meter
theatre – theater
analogue – analog
catalogue – catalog
dialogue – dialog
jewellery – jewelry
draught – draft
pyjamas – pajamas
plough – plow
programme – program
tyre – tire
cheque – check
mediaeval – medieval
defence – defense
licence – license

Implications for Translators

If you translate into Spanish from English, it shouldn’t be difficult for you to work from a document in either American or British English regardless of your country of origin.  However, some clients request that a document be translated from Spanish into either British or American English.  Because of the very subtle grammatical differences, it wouldn’t be wise to translate into an English dialect that you are not intimately familiar with.

If you are a client who needs to have your document translated into a specific dialect of English, make sure that your translator is a native of the country which you will target with your translation.  If this isn’t possible, then make sure that the translator you entrust with your document is either currently living in the country (i.e. an American translator residing in England) or has lived in the country for a substantial amount of time (i.e. a Brit who went to college and worked in the U.S. for several years).

Is the comma on its way out?

comma use

It’s probably one of the most difficult forms of punctuation to get to grips with and, for some, it’s starting to be more and more unnecessary. The question is, will the comma will eventually die out completely in the future? Let’s take a look at the arguments…

Linguist and Columbia University professor John McWhorter is certainly in favor of putting commas to rest forever. His analysis of the subject falls into two broad categories. Firstly, according to McWhorter, it seems pretty fair to say that there’s no list of definitive rules that explain exactly when and why one should place a comma in a sentence.

William Strunk Jr.’s The Elements of Style is one of the most popular texts for comma use, still in use today. One of the rules laid down in this 100-year-old publication is that commas should “enclose parenthetic expressions” and come “before and or but” when introducing an independent clause.

Even so, as McWhorter quite rightly points out, Strunk was wandering around in a pair of spats when he wrote The Elements of Style and so little of what’s written in the publication needs to have very much to do with how we communicate today in our modern and highly technological society. With that in mind we can move on to the second category of analysis as laid out by McWhorter, that of the use of text messages, tweets and other kinds of conversational-style communications.

There’s simply no need for commas (indeed they take up valuable character space) in tweets. Even top-notch journalists who write for national and international publications choose to tweet without commas. It seems that there isn’t a need for the comma, because the essence of what one’s trying to communicate in 140 characters is conveyed with or without them.

For example, a couple of years back Gmail went down – shocking! – and the entire world began tweeting sarcastic comments about the issue. Many of the snarling remarks came from professional journalists and few of them felt the need to use a comma. They were all more interested in getting their tweet out there into cyberspace for all to read.

An editor at BuzzFeed tweeted “whoa whoa guys I can’t respond to all zero gmails at once.” Writer and biographer Rachel Syme published a joking jibe that read: “I rubbed my genie lamp and wished for one of those Freedom programs that keeps you from email but I wished TOO BIG sorry guys sorry.” And writer Jen Doll brought the entire Gmail nightmare to and end with: “I guess all those losers outside skiing or like at the movies or whatever missed out on this exciting adventure we just had.”

Did you see any commas? Did you need them to understand what you read? No!

This is exactly the point that McWhorter is trying to make when referring to the outdated nature of the comma in our super advanced technological world.

Having said all that, there are obviously a band of comma fanatics out there that continue to worry about what might happen when people start writing sentences like, “Let’s eat grandma” and not, “Let’s eat, grandma”, which are clearly two different things. But unless we all happen to be living in a version of Little Red Riding Hood, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll confuse the first sentence with the second anyway.

Comma fanatics are also worried that we won’t be able to distinguish the difference between style; that we won’t be able to produce content suitable for formal essays and articles as well as tweets and texting. The concern is that we’ll end up having to read articles in the New York Times without commas, but maybe the future’s not going to include long, formal articles in the NYT anyway. Let’s face it, tweets, texts and other digital publications have already started to turn print journalism into a thing of the past.

What do you think? Should the comma stay or should it go?

Does the English Language lack beautiful phrases to describe positive emotions?

positive emotions english translation

Tim Lomas, a psychology lecturer from the University of East London, published an article in the Journal of Positive Psychology that lists 216 of the world’s astoundingly rich phrases for feelings of beauty, positivity, and well-being that simply cannot be translated into English.

As Lomas’ article illustrates, there are literally hundreds of terms and phrases used all over the world for which the English language doesn’t have an equivalent. For example, Volta is a Greek word used to describe a relaxing stroll down the street. Jugaad is a Hindi term that describes one’s ability to just get on with things. Gumusservi is a Turkish expression to describe the beautiful shimmery shine that the moonlight creates across the ocean.

The most interesting aspect of the article is that the phrases in question all relate to positive feelings of well-being. Lomas structures his paper in such a way as to consider terms that cover spirituality, character, pro-sociality, intimacy and feelings. Might Lomas’ findings conclude that the English language lacks passion and feeling? We hope not!

Whatever the outcome, if you have a true love for language, you’ll find his article quite fascinating. We’ve listed 22 of the 216 phrases presented by Lomas in his paper and included his translations of each to their nearest possible English equivalent. Have fun!…

  • Ah-un (Japanese): Unspoken communication between close friends
  • Að jenna (Icelandic): The ability to persevere through hard or boring tasks
  • Cafune (Portuguese): Tenderly running fingers through a loved one’s hair
  • Fargin (Yiddish): To glow with pride at the success of others
  • Gökotta (Swedish): Waking up early to hear the first birds sing
  • Gula (Spanish): The desire to eat simply for the taste
  • Iktsuarpok (Inuit): The anticipation felt when waiting for someone
  • Kreng-jai (Thai): The wish to not trouble someone by burdening them
  • Mbuki-mvuki (Bantu): To shed clothes to dance uninhibited
  • Querencia (Spanish): A secure place from which one draws strength
  • Santosha (Sanskrit): Contentment arising from personal interaction
  • Sarang (Korean): The wish to be with someone until death
  • Saudade (Portuguese): The feeling you get when you’re missing, longing or yearning for something that happened in the past (or for someone who is no longer around).
  • Schnapsidee (German): An ingenious plan hatched while drunk
  • Seijaku (Japanese): Serenity in the midst of chaos
  • Sobremesa (Spanish): When the food is gone but the conversation is still flowing
  • Tarab (Arabic): Musically-induced ecstasy or enchantment
  • Toska (Russian): A wistful longing for one’s homeland
  • Uitwaain (Dutch): Walking in the wind for fun
  • Waldeinsamskeit (German): A mysterious feeling of solitude in the woods
  • Yuan fen (Chinese): A binding force impelling a destined relationship
  • Yutta-hey (Cherokee): Leaving life at its zenith; departing in glory.

 

Have you got a phrase to add to Lomas’ list of “untranslatable” positive feelings? We’d love for you to share them!

When an English Rule Deserves to be Broken – Part II

English grammar rules

Continuing on with our last article, on English rules that deserve to be broken, this time we’re going to take a look at a longstanding “rule” that has dismayed translators, writers and students alike:

Double negatives are always wrong.

Taught since childhood, this rule seems to be a logical one: after all, our Math teachers taught us that “two negatives make a positive”, and this grammar “rule” boasts a long and illustrious history, first turning up as far back as 1762 in Bishop Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar.

First, it’s worth noting that not all languages consider that double negatives resolve to a positive – including Spanish, Russian and Persian. The Spanish “No lo he visto nunca” (I’ve not never seen him”) simply emphasizes the fact that the speaker has never, ever seen the subject being mentioned, and puts into doubt the logical argument used to support the rule in English.

Second, even those languages that do interpret doubles negatives as a positive often have non-standard dialects where the construction is common, often with ambiguous meaning.

Chaucer commonly used double, and even triple, negatives – much in the Spanish style – for emphasis:

“Ther nas no man no where so vertuous” (“There was never no man nowhere so virtuous”)

Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

If someone tries to sell you a ring made of a material that is “not unlike gold”, does it mean that it is gold?

“This accident is not unlike my dream,

Belief of it oppresses me already.”

Shakespeare, Othello

Finally, double negatives in English can be used as a rhetorical tool in “litotes”, a figure of speech that uses a negative to affirm a positive.

“I will multiply them and they shall not be few”.

Jeremiah 30:19

Obviously, here the meaning is clearly the opposite of “few”.

This device is always used deliberately to emphasize something by stating a negative to further affirm a positive, although context necessarily plays an important part in interpreting it, as in backhanded compliments, as in illustrator Mike Grell’s description of James Bond:

“Bond was not unattractive, but there was a cruelty about his mouth and he was more real than Hollywood has portrayed him.”

In short, some so-called “grammar rules” are neither grammatical nor legitimate rules, and there are circumstances in which others can – and should – be broken.

When an English Rule Deserves to be Broken – Part I

Unlike Spanish, which has the Royal Spanish Academy that – together with the other twenty-one national language academies in Spanish-speaking nations – ensures a common standard for Spanish, English has no such body. Instead, there are a number of rule books or “style guides”, each with its own set of rules and guidelines. The Oxford Manual of Style is one of the most popular for British English, as are style guides from The Economist, The Telegraph and The Guardian. For American English, The Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style are commonly used for most texts, while the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing is the standard for academic publications, especially in the humanities.

English grammar rulesThis lack of standardization has led to conflicting rules – some of which have no historical linguistic basis – and the perpetuation of what can only be called “grammar myths”, with the concomitant confusion about what “correct” English actually is.

Given this reality, what’s a writer to do?

For the first of this two-part blog post, we’ll examine three of the more common “commandments” that have no historical linguistic basis.

1. Never start a sentence with a conjunction such as “and” or “but”.

Inculcated in school children from the time they first pick up a pencil, this rule is useful for youngsters learning to organize their thoughts on a page, but has been repeatedly “broken” by some of the finest writers in the English language, including Shakespeare:

“And your large speeches may your deeds approve
That good effects may spring from words of love.”

King Lear

2. Never end a sentence with a dangling preposition.

Latin does not place prepositions at the end of sentences and, because Latin was considered at one time to be the “perfect” language and thus the model to be emulated, English grammarians applied this rule to English. Though first articulated by 17th-century English poet John Dryden, it became popularized in Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar published in 1762.

Unfortunately, he seemed to be unable to follow his own rule, writing in the book, “This is an idiom, which our language is strongly inclined to.”

3. Do not split an infinitive.

Once again, Latin grammar rears its ugly head. Since Latin infinitives comprise a single word, they cannot be split, unlike English, whose infinitives comprise two words: “to + verb” (or the bare infinitive, the form used with modal auxiliary verbs) and, once again, prescriptivist grammarians applied the Latin rule to English, despite there being no logical reason for English infinitives to not be split. Henry Alford, the Dean of Canterbury popularized this notion in his 1864 book The Queen’s English. Perhaps one of the most widely known examples of a split infinitive can be found in the opening sequence to the famous Star Trek series:

“…to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

If you’re looking for a more traditional example, Robert Burns wrote in The North Briton, published in 1766:

“Is this the cue given him in his instructions, to boldly assert, that Englishmen are all born to be slaves to a few persons.”

Unfortunately, there are still a few diehards who insist on applying this senseless rule, including United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who unilaterally changed “will faithfully execute” to “will execute faithfully” when swearing in Barack Obama for his second term as president, causing Obama to mix up his words. This inevitably led to charges that his presidency was not legal because he had not uttered the Oath as written, and thus to the two repeating the ceremony – this time, word for word, the following day in the White House.

It is important to remember that many things taught as “rules” are nothing more than stylistic choices, usage conventions or, quite simply, preferences.

Our next post will debunk some more long-standing grammar myths.

New dictionary words for 2014

New words are born and become part of the English language all the time. Sometimes these words are entirely new, though it is more common for already-existing words to morph into new ones, often by adding a new definition, or through processes such as clipping (the shortening of a longer word), blending (the combination of elements from two words to create a new one) and reducing phrases to acronyms, which is particularly common on the internet. As might be expected, many new words have their roots in activities associated with today’s technology-driven society.

vape

Vape: word of the year chosen by Oxford Dictionaries.

 

Below, in no particular order, are some of the newest words to be officially recognized by the Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries and their meanings.

catfish (noun): A person who sets up a false social networking profile for deceptive purposes

Deep Web (noun): The part of the World Wide Web that is not discoverable by means of standard search engines

listicle (noun): An internet article presented as a numbered or bullet-pointed list

dox (verb): To search for and publish private or sensitive information on the internet about an individual, usually with malicious intent

binge-watch (verb): To watch multiple episodes of a TV program in rapid succession, usually via DVDs or internet streaming

hate-watch (verb): To watch a TV program for the sake of the enjoyment derived from mocking or criticizing it

humblebrag (verb): An ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud

neckbeard (noun): A growth of hair on a man’s neck, especially when regarded as indicative of poor grooming

bro hug (noun): A friendly embrace between two men

steampunk (noun): Science fiction dealing with 19th-century societies dominated by historical or imagined steam-powered technology

turducken (noun): A boneless chicken stuffed into a boneless duck stuffed into a boneless turkey

tweep (noun): A person who uses the Twitter online message service to send and receive tweets

vape (verb): To inhale and exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device

cray (adjective): Crazy

amazeballs (adjective): Very impressive, enjoyable or attractive

adorbs (adjective): Cute or adorable

SMH: Shaking my head (to express disapproval, frustration, etc.)

WDYT: What do you think

YOLO: You only live once

ICYMI: In case you missed it

Up the apples, she’s got a lovely pair of bacons – what do East Londoners mean?

Cockney rhyming slang is jam-packed with references to fruit, vegetables and other kinds of foods. This East London working-class slang, structured around a simple rhyming system, was the East Londoner’s language code which prevented bosses, the police and other authority figures from understanding what was being said.

Some of the most popular food-related cockney rhyming phrases include “apples and pears,” “bacon and eggs” and “custard and jelly.” Below, we’ve compiled a fairly extensive list of food rhymes and their East London meaning…

cockney_slang

Classic London Cockney Rhyming Slang Typography Print By Rebbie

apples and pears

The phrase “apples and pears” rhymes with “stairs” and so is commonly used to refer to anything which might be going on above. You might say to someone, looking for an item they’ve lost, “It might be up the apples,” meaning it might be upstairs and therefore worth checking.

bacon and eggs

Bacon and eggs rhymes with legs and is used when you want to compliment a woman. You might say, “You’ve got a lovely pair of bacons,” meaning that she has a really good looking pair of legs.

custard and jelly

“Shall we watch a bit of custard?” might be a question someone would ask if they wanted to watch the television, as custard and jelly refers directly to the telly (television).

loaf of bread

If you’re ever told to, “use your loaf,” in the East End of London, it’s because you’re being told to “use your head” or to think/act smarter. “Head” rhymes with “bread,” and so the phrase is shortened from “use your loaf of bread (head)” to “use your loaf!”

mince pies

When a guy from the East End of London wants to chat up a lovely lady that he sets his eyes on, he might say, “You’ve got lovely mincies.” “Mince pies”, rhymes with “eyes” and… the conclusion to be drawn from the rest is quite clear.

peas in the pot

When you walk into a room and someone says, “It’s a bit peasy in here,” they mean that it’s a bit hot. “Peas in the pot” rhymes with “hot,” hence the use of the phrase, “peasy.”

plates of meat

“Plates of meat” rhymes with “feet.” You might hear someone say, “Be careful of me (my) plates,” if they’re frightened that someone else is about to stand on their feet.

potatoes in the mould

A shortened version of “potatoes” in the East End of London is the word “taters.” The phrase “potatoes (taters) in the mould” rhymes with “cold” and is used when someone is feeling a little nippy. You might hear someone say, “It’s a bit taters in here.”

rabbit and pork

If you happen to be spending a lot of time with someone who talks and talks and talks and never seems to want to just be quiet, you might want to say, “Wow! You can really rabbit, can’t you!” The phrase “rabbit and pork” rhymes with “talk” and is used to talk about the big chatterboxes in our lives.

tea leaf

“He’s a little tea leaf,” is used to accuse someone of being a “thief.”

As is made evident from the examples above, the parts of the rhymes which don’t actually match the sound of the word they are referring to is the word that is normally used in Cockney Rhyming Slang. For instance, in “bacon and eggs”, “eggs” rhymes with “legs”, but “bacon” is the part of the phrase which is used when you want to tell a woman she has a lovely pair of “bacons” (legs).

By opting for the section of the rhyme which doesn’t actually rhyme, the secret meaning of the phrase was kept even more of a secret amongst the working classes of East London. Secrecy to Cockney Rhymers means everything.

 

Don’t be a nincompoop!

British English is full of fun and fanciful terms. The phrase, “Don’t be a nincompoop!” is just one prime example.

British termImage courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Nincompoop,” meaning fool or idiot, was traced back to its first usage in the 1670s by Jonson in his Dictionary of 1755. He believed the word to have come from the Latin legal term, “non compos mentis”, which translates to insane or mentally incompetent or not of sound mind. However, there are a number of etymologists who decidedly disagree with this explanation.

For example, some experts believe that “nincompoop” has actually developed from a proper name. Nicodemus, a derivation of Nicholas, has been cited as a possible example, as it was used in the French language to denote a fool.

Another band of etymologists, however, believe that “nincompoop” might simply be an invented word. The Oxford English Dictionary also believes that the origins of the word can be dated back to the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and that there were a variety of versions of the word in use, including nicompoop and nickumpoop.

Folk etymology, like the kind John Ciardi from A Browser’s Dictionary uses to dismissively relate “nincompoop” to the Dutch phrase nicht om poep, which means “the female relative of a fool,” might hold some weight. “To poop” is an English verb used today to describe the action of going to the toilet, but in the past it was a verb which meant “to cheat” or “to fool.” This verb probably came from the Dutch verb, “poep”, which means “to shit” or “to fart,” which highlights interesting connections between the many meanings of these verbs.

According to Francis Grose’s slang dictionary of 1785, “nincompoop” has experienced a number of spelling variations. There have been recordings of nickumpoop, nincumpoop, nink-a-poop, ninkompoop, ninkumpupe, ninny-cum-poop. In Grose’s notes, “nincompoop,” regardless of how it is spelt, is the word used to describe someone, “who never saw his wife’s ****,” (the asterisks are printed, exactly as printed here, in Grose’s dictionary). An alternative etymology is offered by a later slang collector, John Camden Hotten, who in 1860 suggested the ‘corruption of ‘non compos mentis’ (not of sound mind).

Despite the uncertainty about the origins of the term, its use has always been pretty clear. “Nincompoop” is either used to refer to a fool or a simpleton. The “nincompoop” is a human being, lacking in intelligence and who flaunts his or her stupidity without shame in front of others. Favourable synonyms of the terms include, jackass, idiot, dunce, imbecile, or moron. Any term used to describe an ignorant simpleton can be replaced with the British phrase, “nincompoop”.

However, there are also a few instances in which “nincompoop” has been used to refer to something other than ignorant stupidity. “Nincompoop” has also been used to mean a suitor who lacks self-confidence and it was used by Thomas Shadwell in his 1672 play entitled, “Epsom Wells,” to refer to a hen-pecked husband.

It’s worth mentioning that “nincompoop” is still regularly used by the British in the 21st century in general conversation. It is used as a soft, teasing term amongst friends and loved ones, for the most part, rather than as a cutting term meant to cause pain to someone else or make them feel uncomfortable. The British love for silly-sounding words is probably one of the most important factors in the longevity of this particular 1670s phrase.