If you tuned in yesterday to coverage of Stage 2 of the Tour de France you might have heard a commentator shout out that Mark Cavendish, the Manx Express, had blitzed across the finish line. If you’re like me, the nickname drew a blank. The only word I associate with “manx” is a tailless domesticated cat and, really, Cavendish isn’t very feline looking.
It turns out that the dashing young Brit hails from the Isle of Man, a self governing British dependency located in the Irish Sea. While not a part of the United Kingdom, the island is a responsibility of the British government, hence Cavendish’s British nationality. A member of Team Columbia-HTC, Cavendish is known as a strong sprinter and his stage win came as no surprise. Even though he is relatively young in the world of professional cycling (he is only 24), Cavendish won four stages of the Tour de France last year before dropping out of the race to focus on the upcoming Olympic games.
So what exactly does the moniker the “Manx Express” and the Isle of Man have in common? It’s simple really. Manx is both the official language of the island—or what used to be the official language, at least—and the pronunciation of the island in Manx (Man=Manx). The last native speaker of the language, Ned Maddrell, died in 1974, but a revival of the language is thriving on the island and in small pockets elsewhere (Omniglot has written about attending Manx meet-ups in Wales). Originally derived from Old and Middle Irish, Manx began to decline in the 19th century and was replaced by English on the island. By the 1921 census, only 1.1% of the island reported speaking Manx. Even though the last native speaker died in 1974, a scholarly revival had begun and now some children are bilingual with Manx and English. One primary school teaches exclusively in Manx and all secondary schools on the island offer Manx as a second language. Right now, 2.2% of the island report a knowledge of Manx. It looks as if the might not be quite so dead yet.
I doubt that Cavendish speaks Manx on a regular basis, if at all, but it is rather fun that the cycling world has picked up on his interesting heritage. As a citizen of a dependency, Cavendish has the option to use either British or Man (Manx) nationality, and while I don’t blame him for using the more known of the two, it is a pity that I had to go on an internet scavenger hunt to figure out the meaning of his commonly used nickname.
For Part I of Language and le Tour de France, go here Parsing the Peloton