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Interesting questions from readers
Nov 25, 2016

L. Bertrand asks, “Did a gunnysack get its name because it was used for carrying guns?”

Although that’s an intriguing notion, it isn’t the explanation for the word. Gunny entered English in 1711 from the Hindi word, goni (sack). It refers to a coarse fabric made from jute or hemp fibres. Because of its strength and durability, it is used chiefly for sacks and bags. Hence, a gunnysack is a sack made of gunny.

Mary King poses an unusual question. She writes, “I like to take an afternoon nap cuddled under my afghan. I looked that word up and Wikipedia says my blanket is called that because the first ones were made in Afghanistan. But that raised a new question. My question is this. Should I spell afghan with a capital A?”

The short answer is no. Use a lower case “a.” That is, do not refer to an afghan coverlet with a capital “A.”

Such an afghan is a thing. It is comparable to a sheet or bedspread, words you wouldn’t dream of capitalizing. Once you capitalize afghan, you’re in proper noun territory and the word than suggests a person who lives in Afghanistan. The inhabitants of that country are known as Afghans with a capital “A.”

“Coverlet or shawl of wool, knitted or crocheted in colourful or geometric design,” is the third meaning of afghan in most dictionaries, including the OED. The word was borrowed in 1833.

Helen R. asks a question I’m unable to answer: “Who dreamed up the word chunnel for that tunnel between England and France?”

Chunnel appears to be one of those terms which just pops up out of nowhere, then instantly becomes part of everyday vocabulary. Researchers have no idea who first used chunnel and no one has ever tried to take credit for coining it.

Surprisingly, the word was heard decades before the Chunnel was built. It was first used in 1928 in reference to a proposed tunnel that would pass under the English Channel to link France and England. That tunnel never materialized and the word, chunnel, was rarely heard until the 1950s.

A word like chunnel is known as a “blend” because it is a blend or meld of two existing words. In this case, the existing words are “channel” and “tunnel.”

We have quite a few blends in English. One that’s often heard and that dates to the same time as chunnel is motel — a merging of “motor” and “hotel.”

Oxbridge is a fusing of “Oxford” and “Cambridge.” From “electric” and “execute,” we got electrocute. Brunch comes from “breakfast” and “lunch.” Smog joins “smoke” and “fog” together, and breathalizer grew from “breath” and “analize.”

These terms are still considered informal, not standard, English. Remarkably, this holds true for Chunnel even though we almost never hear the correct term — English Channel Tunnel.

The Chunnel, 11th longest tunnel in the world, is a 50.5-kilometre rail tunnel linking England and France. It opened in May 1994, but, believe it or not, such a tunnel was first suggested in 1751.