Unlocking the language with Robert Burchfield

March 14, 2014

Unlocking the English Language by Robert Burchfield (Faber & Faber, 1989) had been sitting unread on my shelf for far too long, so I let it jump the queue and am very glad that I did. For readers interested in lexicography and word lore it’s a goldmine, with fascinating facts, anecdotes and esoterica on every page.

Robert Burchfield - Unlocking the English Language (faber & faber 1989)Burchfield was a New Zealand-born philologist who spent much of his life working as a lexicographer in England. From 1957–86 he edited the new four-volume Supplement to the OED, and later wrote an admirable third edition of Fowler, among other works. He championed inclusivity when it came to taboo words and global varieties of English.

Like his earlier book The English Language, Unlocking…, though short, is a rich and expansive work. The first four chapters are based on his T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, the next eight a variety of essays on grammar, vocabulary, and dictionary-making. He assesses grammars as recent as CGEL and as old as Ben Jonson’s; his comments on the latter show his forthrightness and penchant for metaphor:

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Willy-nilly apostrophes and apocope

February 24, 2014

My fortnightly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues with three new posts. First: Apocope is not to be dissed resumes an unofficial series on different types of word formation. Apocope involves the loss of sounds from the ends of words:

The verb help was helpan in Old English and helpen in Middle English, and though its related past participle holpen survives in some US dialects, the word has otherwise definitively lost that final sound. . . .

Apocope is a term in diachronic (or historical) linguistics, as in the examples above. But it also applies on a shorter timescale to changes that are a sort of elision. Thus cinematograph gives us cinema; popular, pop; traditional, trad; veteran and veterinary surgeon, vet; microphone, mike; detoxification, detox; disrespect, dis or diss, and so on.

I look at a couple of examples of apocope in more detail, and show how words undergoing this change are apt to be colloquial at first.

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Willy-nilly word development sketches the history of the reduplicative phrase willy-nilly, which has two common senses: 1. whether willingly or not; 2. carelessly, randomly, haphazardly.

Nill is the old negative of will in the sense ‘to want’ or ‘to be willing’. This pair of opposites often collocated, as in the line from a Celtic fairy tale ‘will she nill she marry him’.

Willy-nilly came about through paired phrases of the form nill he, will he; nill I, will I; and nill ye, will ye. As Paula Kadose Radetzky writes in her scholarly history of willy-nilly (PDF), ‘all of the finite clause types of the form will [x], nill [x] collapsed into the expression willy-nilly, and it took on the form of an adverb.’ Her paper shows how this led to some ambiguity on account of the pronouns disappearing.

Read the rest for more on the divergent meanings of willy-nilly, and how reduplication might have affected its semantic shift.

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Finally, Apostrophe do’s, dos and don’ts reflects on a recent kerfuffle over apostrophes being officially removed from street signs in Cambridge before being unofficially, then officially, reinstated.

Noting the different and changing styles of different authorities (do’s and dos, 1950’s and 1950s), and the extreme rhetoric and dire warnings from certain quarters, I advise equanimity and flexibility in our attitudes to this contentious mark:

This kind of variation is a normal part of the great sprawl of English usage. As a proofreader and editor I apply contemporary standards of correctness – and, where these vary, consistency and adherence to a regional or house style. As a reader I wince at its–it’s confusion – especially in formal contexts, where, as Michael notes, it can diminish authority.

But I don’t get worked up over apostrophes dropped from street signs or added to grocers’ signs. I wouldn’t lose sleep if they were abandoned altogether, though that would be easier said than done, and some apostrophes are useful for avoiding ambiguity.

Are you an apostrophe activist or a disinterested observer? Maybe you’ll even be moved to rhyme about it, as some have done in the comments.

Your thoughts in any form, on this or the other posts, are welcome. Older articles on word lore and language usage are available in the archive.


Curmudgeonly metonymy

December 21, 2013

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog I have a couple of new posts to share. First up, The grumbling heart of ‘curmudgeon’ looks at a much-loved and quite mysterious word:

It’s a fine word, curmudgeon, a pleasing way to say we are not pleased. It’s often associated with middle-aged or older men – Waldorf and Statler are classic examples – but this is not a prerequisite. For editorial and pedantic types of all ages, curmudgeonry can be a badge of pride – a righteous grumpiness marking the pursuit of perfection, or as close to it as possible in the circumstances.

The word is also something of a mystery. Despite its colourful past, we don’t know where it came from, and an array of early spellings – including curmudgin, cormogeon, cormoggian, and curre-megient – merely invites further speculation.

Curmudgeon also plays a memorable part in lexicographical lore, owing to certain consequences of Samuel Johnson’s dubious etymology.

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What is metonymy? Enquiring minds want to know offers a short account of the figure of speech known as metonymy, with lots of examples (some of them debatable):

In the familiar saying the pen is mightier than the sword, neither noun is meant literally – rather, they refer by metonymy to the acts of writing and warfare, respectively. . .

Centres of power are often metonymized. Journalists talk about Washington or the White House when they mean the president or presidency of the USA, they use Downing Street as shorthand for the office of the UK prime minister, the crown for the queen, king, or monarchy, and Brussels for institutions of the European Union. In common parlance the law often substitutes for the police, while Hollywood can mean that area’s film industry and Silicon Valley the tech industry.

The post continues along those lines, and the comments provide further examples and some constructive criticism.

Sometime Christmas week I’ll have a new post at Macmillan on words and phrases of the year, so take a look if you’re online then. Archived posts are here, if you want to browse older discussions.


Yan tan tethera pethera pimp — an old system for counting sheep

November 27, 2013

If any lightfoot Clod Dewvale was to hold me up, dicksturping me and marauding me of my rights to my onus, yan, tyan, tethera, methera, pimp, I’d let him have my best pair of galloper’s heels in the creamsourer.
—James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Though I grew up in the countryside, I’m not of direct farming stock, which may be why I learned of yan tan tethera only quite recently (courtesy of @vencut2 on Twitter). It’s an old counting system used traditionally by shepherds in parts of the UK, and also in knitting and fishing and so on, or by children for their own amusement.

stan carey - herd of sheep in Ireland, spring 2009 - yan tan tethera

Metheradik (=14) sheep in the west of Ireland (photo by Stan Carey)

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Slang bans and aphaeresis

November 22, 2013

I’ve a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First, ’Scuse me, squire – ’tis just aphaeresis gives a brief account of the linguistic phenomenon known as aphaeresis or apheresis, which involves:

the dropping of an initial sound or sounds of a word. Despite its uncommon name, the process is familiar. It’s what lies behind the shortening of especially to ’specially, because to ’cause (also spelt cos), espy to spy, esquire to squire, and alone to lone. As you can see, what’s lost is often an unstressed initial vowel – this is a particular type of aphaeresis known also as aphesis.

Though it’s essentially a phonetic shortcut, what happens in speech tends to manifest in writing. Poets are fond of aphaeresis because it lets them manipulate prosody better. This is why in many poems you’ll see upon appear as aphaeretic ’pon, amid as ’mid and it was as ’twas.

Aphaeresis also explains the silent ‘k’ in knife and knee, and why drawing rooms aren’t for drawing in, and it lies behind pairs of now-semantically-distinct words such as amend and mend, and etiquette and ticket. Read the rest for more.

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Is banning slang counterproductive? follows up on a recent news story in the UK where secondary school students were given a list of words and phrases to avoid. I am of course sceptical (and skeptical) about this measure:

That those responsible have implemented the ban only in certain ‘formal language zones’ – not the canteen, for instance – suggests they know how futile a whole-school ban would be. It also suggests they trust that their students know how to switch from formal to informal registers – so why introduce the ban at all? Couldn’t awareness be raised through classroom discussion?

Complaining about young people’s slang is a popular pastime among older generations. Even celebrities get stuck in. Actor Emma Thompson lambasted what she deemed improper language: ‘It makes you sound stupid, and you’re not stupid.’ Compare her criticism with linguist William Dwight Whitney’s remark that slang combines ‘exuberance of mental activity’ with the ‘natural delight of language-making’.

The post also considers what the students themselves think of the ban, and shows how it might backfire on them socially.

Comments on either post are welcome here or at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, and my archive is here if you want to browse older articles.


Horripilatory etymology

November 17, 2013

It’s a dark wet evening in the west of Ireland and I’m cosying up with The Poolbeg Book of Irish Ghost Stories (1990), edited by the late author and literary editor David Marcus. His brief introduction contains a word too rare even to appear in the OED. But you’ll probably know or can guess what it means:

[Ghosts’] preferred outer abode was a dark wood; indoors they inhabited rambling old castles or, more latterly, unsaleable houses, stalking creaky corridors and draughty bedchambers to the accompaniment of howls, shrieks, moans, plods and clankings. It goes without saying that they were largely nocturnal creatures, preferring the small hours and often the most inclement of weather in which to conduct their business. Daylight, electric light, gaslight were eschewed. Candlelight, because they had the capacity to extinguish a candle and so create the maximum horripilatory effect, was welcomed.

Horripilatory is a technical word meaning hair-raising. The associated noun horripilation is much more common, though hardly an everyday term; it too refers to the physiological phenomenon often called gooseflesh or goosebumps, typically caused by cold or fear. It comes from Latin horripilāre “bristle with hairs”, formed from horrēre “bristle, tremble” + pilus “hair” (cf. the cosmetic terms epilation and depilation).

Horrēre lurks behind horror, horrendous, horrify, abhor and horrid (which originally meant bristling or shaggy); and it’s also seen in the obscure horrious “causing horror”, horrent “bristling or rough”, horrisonant and horrisonous “of horrible sound”, and abhorrible “detestable”. A pretty hair-raising bunch of words, wouldn’t you say?


Dictionary updates and etymological commutes

September 13, 2013

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about digital dictionaries and everyday etymologies.

The dictionary recently underwent a major update. News media tend to cover this by focusing on new words, either through force of habit, to drum up controversy, or because they think it’s the best way to interest people in a story about lexicography. So I wanted to look not at shiny new entries but at changes to existing ones.

Updating … A new version of your dictionary is now available takes technology as its theme:

Digital culture grows and mutates at a fierce pace, and a modern reference needs to reflect this in its definitions and example sentences.

Sometimes the alterations are subtle but significant. If you look up camera, for instance, sense 1 says it may be “part of a mobile device”. Several years ago this would not have been so, and several years before that it wouldn’t even have made sense. Macmillan Dictionary now also specifies analogue camera, one that “uses film rather than electronic signals”, where once that would have been implicit.

I also discuss updates to words like calendar, curate, tap, and gesture.

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The mutable route of ‘commute’ sketches the curiously winding history of this familiar Americanism,* and how divorced it has become – for some of us at least – from its origins as a verb meaning “exchange” or “interchange” (cf. mutation, transmute), and later “make less severe” (a sense still current in law):

The “exchange” sense of commute allowed it to be used in various ways relating to financial transaction, including the act of combining several payments into one. So when people began buying season tickets for trains and streetcars in 19th century US, they called them commutation tickets. From here it was a short stop to commuter – at first “one who holds a commutation ticket” – and to commute, referring to this mode of regular travel to and from work.

Only after developments in mass transportation systems, then, did the familiar sense of commute arise to fill a lexical niche.

You can read the rest here, or visit the archive for my older posts.

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* Though it’s perhaps less familiar as an Americanism.


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