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Author Topic: The Roots of English  (Read 300 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: June 05, 2017, 07:58:30 AM »

The Roots of English
By Jose A. Carillo

More than a decade ago, on our way from Washington, D.C., to New York to watch Les Miserables on Broadway, my wife Leonor and I made a side trip to the imposingly neon-lit gaming center of Atlantic City on the East Coast. No, we were not inveterate gamblers out to break the bank at the stately Trump Taj Mahal casino. We were simply being treated to a night out by a wealthy relative who had made a small fortune in the United States by working as many as three day-and-night sales clerking jobs for nearly 20 years. She had given each of us $100 for gambling money, Leonor’s for a try at the slot machines and mine for a sortie at the baccarat tables.

Expectedly, my puny $100 lasted only a few rounds of blackjack. I was actually an embarrassment among the well-heeled players who, as some former and current top Philippine government officials are reputed to do, would bet as high as $20,000 on a single play. I therefore hurriedly left for the slot machines to see how Leonor was doing. Down to her last token, she was in a decidedly foul mood. When she saw me she plunked the metal into the slot machine in a way that plainly meant good riddance, yanked the lever, and stood up to join me. “These things are really designed to dupe you with fierce regularity,” she said. But just as we were leaving, the machine suddenly clanged and a bell started ringing. From the machine’s maw spewed tokens that ran to a few hundred dollars. A minor commotion ensued as an attendant came with a small plastic barrel, scooped the tokens, and brought us to the cashier to change the booty to greenbacks.

Leonor and I gleefully decided to open a U.S. dollar account with our winnings.  Our relative, however, wiser to the ways of the world, admonished us that such wealth earned with no sweat was no good and wouldn’t last. He suggested that to exorcise the bad luck from it, we should instead treat everybody in our entourage to a Big Mac and French fries. I promised to do that after a leisurely stroll on the boardwalk along the coast, near which the surf of the Atlantic Ocean crashed with melodious regularity in the darkness.

Later, as I chomped a Big Mac and looked at some of the bloodshot-eyed gamblers wolfing the same, I was reminded of a story about how the English word “sandwich” came about, and how it came to represent a concept that is probably as popular as “love” and “mother.” The roots of “sandwich” had actually been traced to an odd gambling-related practice in Old England, in the same manner that many Filipinos, in both the real and figurative sense, can trace their ancestry or parentage to an “anak ng jueteng.” It is told that in the mid-1700s, John Montague, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, got so addicted to gambling that he refused to leave the card table even to eat. He thus would ask his servants to put meat, cheese, and other foodstuff between two slices of bread for him to get by. The Earl’s concoctions were the first of their kind, and in time they were named not after him but after his town. The rest, including my Big Mac, was history.

Let me add as a footnote that Sandwich is a Saxon word that means “sandy place” or “a place in the sand,” which of course has absolutely nothing to do with food. (Or are we really that sure?) And close to Sandwich there was a small village called Ham, which, I must warn you, had got nothing to do with hamburger either; this sandwich variety was first concocted in Hamburg in Germany. The word “ham” actually came from the English word “hamlet,” which means “a small village.” And while we are at it, I might as well tell you that the Anglo-Saxons called a saltwork or a place that produced salt a “wich.” So, it turns out that most if not all of the English towns whose names end in “wich”—such as Northwich, Nantwich, Middlewich, and most likely also Greenwich and Sandwich—once produced salt as a cottage or major industry, like our very own Las Piñas in Parañaque. (Now would you still want to name your new pastry shop Northwich or Southwich?)

All of these ruminations as I dined along the Atlantic Coast prove my little thesis that the roots of English are not as elegant and romantic as many of us colonial-minded Filipinos think. It’s just that far too many English words and icons had relentlessly pummeled our minds since the Americans came to our shores. Many English words we are fond of using—like Crosby (“village where there are crosses,” by being an old Norse word for “village”) and Milton (“farmstead with a mill,” tun being an Old English word for “farmstead”)—are actually as “baduy” and as wedded to the earth as original Tagalog place names like Maasin (“with plenty of salt”), Marulas (“slippery”), Meycauayan (“with some bamboos”), Malinta (“full of leeches”), and Maahas (“infested with snakes”).

I suppose that there were thousands of such Tagalog or vernacular place names that had been blotted out of existence when the Spaniards went on a name-changing spree in our country. You all know that they renamed most of our villages after a saint, such as San Roque, San Agustin, and San Eutiquio and—when the list ran out—even such curiosities as Sta. Mesa and Sta. Cruz. That, of course, is another extremely fascinating story outside plain and simple English that begs to be told. (2003)

This essay, which first appeared in my English-usage column in The Manila Times and subsequently formed part of my book English Plain and Simple, is part of a collection of my personal essays from mid-2002 to date.

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