Google’s Ngram Viewer and wild treacle

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. If you subscribe to it, or follow me on Twitter, you may already’ve seen them, in which case please indulge or disregard.

The first is a report on the new features of a recently relaunched linguistic corpus tool: Google’s Ngram Viewer 2.0:

It has improved the datasets and publisher metadata and added many more books to the corpus, so the results are more accurate and comprehensive than before. The interface remains much the same – you can modify searches by timeframe, degree of detail, and corpus type, including several different languages – but it comes with a whole new bag of tricks.

A significant innovation is the ability to search by part of speech. Say you want to look for a word as a verb, but it also functions as a noun. Just append “_VERB” to your search term – the capital letters are essential – and the Ngram Viewer filters accordingly.

You can also now compare BrE and AmE in the same graph. Here’s one I did of color vs. colour on both side of the Atlantic (click to enlarge):

See colour’s conspicuous double-dip in early-19th-century U.S.? Read on for my interpretation of this shift.

*

My latest piece, Getting ‘treacle’ from wild animals, traces the strange origins of treacle, beginning with the Proto-Indo-European root *ghwer- “wild”, from which we get Latin ferus (→ fierce, feral) and ferox (→ ferocious).

*Ghwer- also gave rise to the Greek word thēr, meaning “beast” or “wild animal”, whence the diminutive thērion – a word Aristotle used to refer to vipers. We see the same root in Therapoda (“beast feet”), a category of dinosaurs . . . . From thērion came thēriakos (adj.) “of a wild animal”, which led to thēriakē “antidote for poisonous wild animals”.

Latin borrowed this as theriaca, which became *triacula in Vulgar Latin. From this we get Old French triacle “antidote”, subsequently imported into Middle English and later to become treacle. Treacle was used especially against venomous bites such as snakes’ – the remedy often included snake flesh – then gradually the word’s meaning shifted from antidote to general cure or prophylactic. Sir Thomas More mentions “a most strong treacle against those venomous heresies”. Eventually the medicinal connotations faded.

You can read the rest of this peculiar etymology at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, and older posts are available here.

Edit: Something else I meant to mention. A couple of weeks ago Macmillan announced it would be phasing out its printed dictionaries. Editor-in-Chief Michael Rundell writes about the decision here. “[E]xiting print is a moment of liberation,” he says, “because at last our dictionaries have found their ideal medium.”

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2 Responses to Google’s Ngram Viewer and wild treacle

  1. Shaun Downey says:

    I think I first came across the use of treacle in this sense in a Fortean Times article.

    Don’t forget the spoof treacle mines and the not so spoof treacle wells.

    There is a Treacle Mine Road in Wincancotn… but that is because the town decided to name some streets on a new estate in honour of streets of Ankh Morpork of the Discworld books

  2. Stan says:

    Shaun: Oh yes, I had forgotten all about those. The Dormouse in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland talks about a treacle well and three sisters who lived at the bottom of it.

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