Strange rules, strange spellings

June 12, 2014

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about strange rules and strange spellings. First up, How many ‘alternatives’ can there be? revisits a recent list of usage peeves from Simon Heffer, focusing on the false idea that there can only be two alternatives:

this dubious rule has little support among experts. Even back in 1965, Ernest Gowers’ revision of Fowler called it a ‘fetish’. It seems to originate in the word’s Latin ancestor, which specified a choice between two. But English is not Latin, and this is the etymological fallacy – the belief that a word’s older or original meaning must be more correct or solely correct. It is a misconception that underlies many false beliefs about words. . . .

No one can uphold the etymological fallacy consistently and still hope to communicate with people. Because so many words drift semantically, the purists must pick and choose a few examples and forget all the rest.

So why do pedants risk what credibility they might have, or seek, for the sake of these shibboleths? I think it has to do with the politics of language, and I elaborate on this a little in the post.

For more discussion of this, see Gretchen McCulloch’s excellent recent article in Slate on linguistic authority (which quotes me on the subject).


That’s the strange rule; now the strange spelling.

Kind’ve a strange phrase examines the item kind’ve, which I saw in two detective novels recently. Kind’ve is a common spelling in informal writing, such as Twitter, but quite rare in edited writing. So what motivates it in each sphere?

You can kind of see why [Michael] Connelly might have used the spelling kind’ve, even if you don’t approve of it. It’s pronounced identically to the standard phrase kind of, at least when the vowel sound in of is unstressed . . . .

I’ve seen non-standard kind’ve in published prose before, albeit only in detective fiction so far: Connelly again, and also Robert Crais. It seems unlikely these capable authors (and their editors) are unaware of the issue and assume kind’ve is formally correct. Rather, I imagine they know the spelling is improper but are using it in dialogue for effect – something writers have always done.

The post goes on to address whether the phrase’s pros in a book, such as they are, are worth the cons. Though I’m (kind’ve) getting used to seeing it, I would still tend to edit it to kind of or kinda – or at least flag it for the writer and hear their case for it.

See also my older post on spelling kind of as kind’ve, and my archive of language posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog if you feel like browsing.

Gaustering about the meaning of ‘gosther’

June 7, 2014

In Seán Ó Faoláin’s novel Bird Alone (1936) the narrator, a young boy, is waiting alone in town for his grandfather:

After shivering under the thatch of a cabin-end for an hour I began to search for him – as by instinct among the pubs. Sure enough, I found him gosthering with some old toady in the Royal Hotel…

Gosthering gave me pause. It was obviously Hiberno-English and meant something like “chatting”, but it was not a word in my idiolect, and I didn’t remember coming across it before. I must have, though, because a quick search showed it was used in Seán O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman:

I’ve no time to be standin’ here gostherin’ with you.

And in Dubliners by James Joyce, albeit used as a noun and spelt slightly differently:

Read the rest of this entry »

Do you take pains saying ‘painstaking’?

June 2, 2014

I don’t know when I first realised that painstaking – which means very careful, diligent and meticulous – is about taking pains. It’s obvious when you see it, but I didn’t make the connection when I first saw the word, and duly used and encountered it for a while before the etymology occurred to me or I read it somewhere.

Consider for a moment how you say the word, specifically the s in the middle. Do you voice it like a z, as in pains-taking, or is it an unvoiced, ‘soft’ s, as in pain-staking? Maybe you say it both ways? Or it could be borderline – it often seems so. I know the pronunciation of a sound can depend a lot on its neighbours, but I don’t have the phonetic savvy to establish precisely what’s going on here.

In any case it seems I’m not the only one to whom the word’s structure wasn’t initially glaringly obvious. When I asked on Twitter how people spoke it, most said they didn’t voice the s, and some were surprised (to put it mildly) to analyse it anew as taking pains. I’ve just put the full Twitter discussion up on Storify, if you’d like to take a look.

tibetan buddhist sand mandala

Tibetan Buddhist monks taking pains over a sand mandala.*

Curiously, there may be a UK/US difference here. British dictionaries tend to include the voiced-s pronunciation (or ‘z-form’) in their entries for painstaking, but some omit the unvoiced-s variant despite its popularity. Macmillan and Collins offer only the z-form, as does Oxford Dictionaries’ UK page – its US page has both.

Cambridge’s UK audio sample is clearly pains-taking, IPA /ˈpeɪnzˌteɪ.kɪŋ/, but its US audio is closer to pain-staking. Merriam-Webster has \ˈpān-ˌstā-kiŋ\ but its audio is (I think) ambiguous. The American Heritage Dictionary 4th ed. has the z-form only, but the 5th has both and notes that despite its etymology the word “often sounds as if it were made from pain and staking”.

So here’s a quick poll, to increase the sample size of this informal survey. Comments on how you say it and what your dialect is would also be welcome, as would phonetic analysis from anyone who has taken pains to learn those ropes.

* Photographer unknown. Please tell me if you can identify the source.

When weather means time in Irish English

May 6, 2014

Ireland has a curious expression whereby this weather is used to mean “these days”. It normally occurs at the end of a clause or sentence, though it doesn’t have to. It’s a very colloquial phrase, more often heard than seen. But it appears sometimes in speechlike prose, such as these examples from the Irish chatroom

(1) He’s a sad man this weather.

(2) what coolant temp are you logging this weather?

(3) Wouldn’t imagine their stock was exactly flying out the door this weather.

(4) Hi, anyone else struggling with tacky paint this weather?

Read the rest of this entry »

Back formations and flag denotations

April 26, 2014

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first, False and flying colours in metaphor, looks at a particular sense of the word colours that refers to flags, in turn an abstraction of identity:

Like many phrases now in common figurative use, with flying colours was literal at first (inasmuch as hanging a flag is literally flying it). But the expression, with its vivid imagery and connotations of success, has obvious appeal, and people duly broadened it to refer to achievements unaccompanied by flag-flying.

A related expression, also of naval pedigree, is to sail [or fight] under false colours, synonymous with under false pretences. It refers to an old seafaring trick associated with pirates but not limited to them, who misrepresented their identity by hoisting ‘friendly’ flags, and so were able to get close enough to a target ship to catch its crew unawares.

You can read the rest for more on the origins and uses of these metaphors.


Surveilling a new back formation considers the word-formation process known as back formation, focusing in particular on surveil, a recent entry to Macmillan Dictionary:

Some back formations are deliberately comical. Jack Winter’s essay ‘How I Met My Wife’ features such novelties as chalant and petuous (from nonchalant and impetuous); here, the removal of prefixes rather than the usual suffixes gives them a playful feel. Other back formations are obviously redundant, such as conversate, cohabitate, and evolute. The use of these and similar words is likely to invite criticism and complaint – sometimes unfounded, as with orientate. Certain others, such as enthuse, occupy a grey area of acceptability.

More often, back formations are developed because there’s a need for them. Surveil is a case in point.

See the full post for more discussion and examples of back formation, or my archive at Macmillan for older stuff.

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:

Read the rest of this entry »

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.


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.


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.


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