British Sinks

Being abroad can be a nerve-racking adventure in which even the most common daily routines become a hilarious challenge. Take washing your hands for instance. British sinks are the place where dragon fire meets penguin tears. They have two taps: the hot one will scald your hands, whereas the cold one will shatter them into frozen pieces. So, why do British sinks have separate taps for hot and cold water? Foreigners around the world have asked themselves that question for decades.

British sink with separate taps for scalding hot and polar freezing water

Back in the day when our grandparents were toddlers, houses didn’t have hot running water, just cold water that came from a main supply. Later on, hot water systems were added separately to each building for safety and health reasons.

British plumbers were concerned about the pressure difference between cold and warm water. The first came from a main supply with a much higher pressure than the latter, which was stored in a tank inside each house and relied on gravity. In case of an imbalance of pressures, one stream could force its way into the other and pose a number of problems.

There were also health risks involved. Old tanks were made of galvanized steel, which corrodes easily; and they didn’t usually have a proper lid, which made the tank an AquaLand for errant birds, distracted insects and sweaty rodents in need of a swim. Squatting fauna aside, hot water sitting in an attic tank was not considered safe to drink, for it created the optimal conditions for bacteria like legionella to proliferate and wreak havoc on human stomachs. So, what did the Brits do? They came up with regulations to keep them separate and prevent the hot water contaminating the cold water supply.

You might be thinking: “Sure, but that was YEEEARS ago. Why haven’t they switched to mixer taps yet?” – Well, in a word: tradition. Whereas continental Europe reinvented its water supply system after the war, Britain rebuilt its houses clinging onto the separate taps tradition. Chances are that mixer taps will take over in the future, but in the meantime, have fun flapping your hands between the two taps when washing them.

Customer Service: Germany vs. USA

A few weeks ago I was in a drugstore and the lady clerk promptly barked at me when I asked for soap. Customer service in Europe is not exactly winning gold, especially in Germany, where people’s skills and willingness to help – let alone enthusiasm – are pretty much foreign concepts. Whether you are on the phone with your internet provider or addressing an employee in the supermarket, you may be treated like an inconvenient nuisance, rather than the reason why they have a job. On the other hand, the startling over-friendliness found in customer service in the United States can be a bit daunting to outsiders. What if we met somewhere in the middle?

Nahuatl Loan Words

I have been looking into indigenous languages, so today I’m bringing you some Nahuatl loan words that you probably use every day. But first things first:

  • In Nahuatl, <tl> is pronounced /t͡ɬ/.
  • It belongs to the Uto-Aztecan language family.
  • “Nahuatl” literally translates as “clear or pleasant sound”.
  • It originally used pictographs and ideographs, and later on acquired the Latin script, which was used to record a large amount of poetry, prose, administrative and legal documents.
  • Nowadays Nahuan languages are spoken by about 1.5 million people, most of whom live in central Mexico, and the different varieties are not always mutually intelligible.

The Spanish language has tons of words of Nahuan origin, and some of them made it into English through a process of secondary borrowing. Let’s take a look!

Linguist Gone Foreign, Language comics, linguistics, etymology, Nahuatl, tomatl

Tomato was borrowed from the Spanish tomate in 17th century. It’s a compound of tomohuac (swelling, fatness) and atl (water), used to refer to spherical fruits or berries with many seeds and watery pulps.

Linguist Gone Foreign, Language comics, linguistics, etymology, Nahuatl, xalapan

Jalapeno was borrowed from the Spanish jalapeño in the 20th century. This type of pepper is native to the Mexican municipality of Jalapa, named after the Aztec Xalapan. The latter is a compound of xalli (sand), atl (water) and pan (place).

Linguist Gone Foreign, Language comics, linguistics, etymology, Nahuatl, ahuacatl

Avocado was borrowed from the Spanish aguacate in the 17th century. Popular opinion suggests that ahuacatl means testicle due to the the shape of avocados, but I haven’t found any reliable source that confirms this theory.

Linguist Gone Foreign, Language comics, linguistics, etymology, Nahuatl, xilli

Chili, the loan word for spicy peppers, was introduced in the 17th century. Fact on the side: there are a few theories that explain the etymology of the toponym Chile, none of which is related to the spicy condiment.

Linguist Gone Foreign, Language comics, linguistics, etymology, Nahuatl, xocoatl

Xocoatl was introduced into Spanish and French in the 17th century. It’s a compound made of xococ (bitter) and atl (water), and it originally referred to the drink made of water and cacao seeds.

That’s all for now! If you are into linguistic curiosities, check out more illustrated articles here.