Richard McNeff
Disorders of the Pleasure Centre
The Wave at the End of the World
Wordlore and ELT

The Ass's Bridge

A major challenge for any language teacher is how to facilitate retention. The average student, it is claimed, can only memorise between five and seven new words a day, and this normally by repetition.  Drilling, however, or similar means of reinforcement, can grow tedious and even prove counterproductive. Something else is needed, a lateral way of hooking a term into memory, and this could be the ‘ass's bridge’.


Die eselbrücke, or ass's bridge, is a German idiom, which refers to a mnemonic or aide-memoire that helps someone embed a new item of information in their memory. ‘Ass’ in this case has the sense, also found in English as in ‘the law is an ass’, of idiot. I first heard the term from a Swiss student who explained how he had only been able to retain ‘beating around the bush’ after learning that the idiom derived from the practice of hunters beating the ground around a bush in order to make the birds emerge.

Language is multi-faceted, frequently displaying a synergy that transcends the bare meaning of a word or phrase. Eponyms - words derived from the name of a person or a place - idioms, etymology and false friends frequently open up unexpected historical or social vistas: they have a story to tell. I had thought myself indulgent in preferring time spent on this more vivid approach to language to that devoted to grammar rules until it dawned on me that these apparent digressions could be fertile soil for a word or expression to take root in a learner’s mind.


It is a well-known fact that ‘sandwich’ derives from the eponymous eighteenth-century earl so engrossed at the gaming tables that he ordered a servant to bring him meat placed between two slabs of bread. Less celebrated is ‘boycott’, a word that seems to exist in every language (check with your students). This comes from Captain James Boycott who incited his Irish compatriots not to buy English goods. There is Monsieur Guillotine and Monsieur Silhouette, not forgetting Nicolas Chauvin, a member of Napoleon's Imperial Guard, so renowned for his loyalty to the emperor that his name became synonymous with an excessive belief in the superiority of a race, gender or kind. For place, we have cashmere from Kashmir, denim from ‘de Nîmes’ (where the original cloth came from), and the cotton woven with silk called damask from Damascus. There is colophon, the name given to the author’s attribution of date and place at the conclusion of their work, which refers to the city in classical Italy whose cavalry were famous for its ability to come to a sudden halt. Explaining the origin of such eponyms can provide a bridge leading to retention.


Idioms can operate in a similar way. ‘On the fiddle’ baffles by seeming to imply a connection between violins and cheating. The fiddle, in fact, was the border on the square wooden plates used by Nelson's navy: if food went on them, someone was having more than their fair share. A host of idioms, of course, derive from the navy and the sea: ‘to rub salt into the wound’, for example, or ‘too small to swing a cat in’ (presumably a cat o'nine tails). Even if there are conflicting accounts concerning origin, speculation can do no harm and provides a camouflaged means of reinforcement. ‘Cut to the chase’ may derive from the need to speed up the pace of Hollywood movies by signalling action. ‘Bite the bullet’ could come from the need to give a wounded soldier a piece of metal to clench between his teeth in the gruesome days before anaesthetic. What could be closer to hand than a bullet and what situation better describes surrender to the unpleasant? Sadly, ‘news’ is probably not an acronym for ‘north, east, west and south’, yet even if the speculation is wide of the mark, the fact we are reiterating a term in a real context empowers memory.


Words open the gates of history: the story of the Saxon ‘pig and deer’ sold at market, as opposed to the French-derived ‘pork or venison’ when served at court, neatly summarises three hundred years of English social division. It points as well to the fusion of a Germanic and Romance language, which led to the language we use today, with its vast vocabulary, abundance of synonyms, and issues raised by a manner of spelling that frequently has little bearing on the way we speak. ‘Disaster’ literally means ill-starred (dis- ‘away, without’ + astro ‘star, planet,’) opening up an entire astrological subtext. Many words possess historical, philosophical or religious dimensions that can help students commit them to memory.


Why words change meaning or assume fresh nuances when they travel is a mystery, but there are many false friends, especially for speakers of Romance languages, and a great deal of confusion can be cleared up (and sometimes hilarity provoked) if we are aware of where the problem lies. It is impossible in French or German, for example, to speak of  ‘a dramatic improvement’ because ‘dramatic’ is intrinsically negative, a bit like the English traumatic. The French terrifiant means terrifying or awful (which of course itself originally meant very good i.e. ‘awefull’) so we should not be surprised when French students tell us they are too sensible, that is ‘sensitive’, to see a ‘terrific’ film. Elaboration of the confusion implicit in faux amis involves reinforcement of the item and enhances the chances of their capture by memory.


Much the same could be said of those cases where an English word has travelled and taken on a new meaning, which native speakers would not understand. A Spaniard footin to a mitin would in fact be jogging to a political assembly. As in Russia, the English ‘meeting’ was adopted in Spain to describe a type of assembly proscribed by dictatorship. When speaking of ‘overhead’, a German speaker might be surprised to learn the reference is to a running cost. For him the English word can be used to describe the administration of a company. Tell a Japanese that someone is ‘moody’ and they will probably want to meet him or her. In Japan the word is used to mean exciting in a somewhat risqué way. Then there is the ubiquitous ‘mobbing’, adopted by many languages to mean bullying in the workplace. This seems a far cry from the Beatles pursued across the tarmac of American airports by a mob of screaming fans until we remember the secondary meaning of mobbing in English: a group of birds attacking a member of the flock. Exploring such differences can provide a conduit for memory.


‘Ass’ besides being outmoded may seem a derogatory term. Nobody would particularly relish being described as one. We are all, however, to a greater or lesser degree, asses when learning a language, victims of the word or expression that cannot be retained, no matter the effort, and the ingrained mistake that can only be corrected at the expense of fluency. We all need a bridge and in providing one we are doing students a favour. Indeed, such bridge building has a broader remit than that cited in the examples given. When a student is trying to grasp an unfamiliar word and we provide a context or illustration we are furnishing a way across. A student is puzzled by the word ‘guess’. Ask him to tell you what you have in your pocket, your mother's maiden name, or your age if you're brave. When he gets it, you have built a link to meaning without having had to explain anything. Even in teaching pronunciation there are frameworks that supply a shortcut, such as ‘one apple, two apples, three apples etc’, the neat way of memorising the rules of connected speech devised by Michael Vaughan-Rees.


In providing such bridges we help ourselves as well. One of the dangers of teaching is staleness: explaining relative clauses or getting bogged down in multi-part phrasal verbs for the umpteenth time can get wearisome - and what is stale for the teller becomes so for the listener. In remaining alive not just to the meaning of words but also to the fascinating dimensions so many contain, we become better bridge-builders and help our students make the new familiar.

This article first appeared in English Teaching Professional (issue 76, September 2011)


Many words tell a story. The knowledge that “stentorian” derives from Stentor, a herald in Greek mythology, or that “maudlin” takes us back to Mary Magdalen, who wept at the empty tomb after the resurrection of Jesus, can prove a helpful key to lock such terms in memory. Neither word, arguably, is particularly useful to anyone apart from advanced learners, but “derrick” – from Goodman Derrick, a seventeenth century Tyburn hangman (presumably because the tower built over an oil well resembles a scaffold) – is a key term in the oil and gas industry. Similarly, “mentor”, the name of the adviser to whose care Odysseus left his son when he set out for Troy, is a buzzword in business today.

Words that derive from place names and those of people, both real and literary, are a rich seam of anecdote and history that can enrich life in the classroom. There will, of course, be students whose eyes glaze over at any mention of the etymology of such eponyms. Just as often, however, it is students themselves who have a notion of the origin of a term or are intrigued enough to ask where it comes from.


Idioms, as well, are a mine of information about history and vanished customs. They are also often one of the easiest things for students to get wrong or confuse with expressions in their own language: in English, for example, you “pull somebody’s leg” but in Spanish it’s the “hair”. Knowing the source of the phrase “daylight robbery” to be reputedly the eighteenth century window tax, which led to so many bricked in windows in houses of the period, can be a useful aide memoire. Similarly, it may help embed “at the drop of a hat” in a student’s memory if the derivation is explained as the signal used to start a duel. Or that “mad as a hatter” refers to the lunacy induced in hat makers by the poisonous fumes of a key ingredient in their work  — mercury.

One way to exploit this is to make a quiz. What, for example, connects ducks, unqualified doctors and quantum physics? The answer is “quack”, used to denote medical charlatans because “quacksalvers” sold useless cures and potions in Tudor streets. In Finnegan’s Wake James Joyce varied the sound emitted by his Irish ducks to “quark”, the name adopted for a new type of subatomic particle discovered in 1968. What word spelt backwards takes us from neutral to nasty? Try reversing “boy”. How does the name of David Beckham’s wife connect with the richest passengers on nineteenth century cruise ships? The best cabins were port out starboard home, which allegedly gives us “posh”.

Of course, care is needed with this sort of thing. I once told an artist friend “news” derived from “north, east, west, south”. It is a charming explanation but apparently hopelessly wrong: “news” being more mundanely the plural of “new”. Before I could correct things, however, he made a large piece consisting of four hares, one on top of the other, facing each of the cardinal points. The only excuse for this is “artistic licence”, an interesting term whose origin is well worth investigating.

This article first appeared in Teachitworld Newsletter (March 2012) 

Lynne Munn - Poet
Richard Snr- Actor
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