“Going viral” in Murphy’s pub

April 16, 2014

You might have heard about the sheep–goat hybrid born in County Kildare in Ireland earlier this month. First reported in the Irish Farmer’s Journal, the animal – informally called a geep – is a rare and noteworthy creature. But what struck me was a linguistic item connected to the story.

Michael Madden on Twitter drew my attention to a phrase in the Irish Times report on the geep:

After the Farmers’ Journal posted a video of the creature on YouTube yesterday, it quickly went viral among customers in Murphy’s pub.

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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.


“Fortune is bald behind”

April 28, 2013

The Chicago Tribune had a brief article in January on baby naming trends, specifically the practice of naming children after places. It mentions the importance of timing:

“Fashionable names risk a kairos problem,” says speech consultant Jay Heinrichs . . . . “Kairos is the rhetorical art of timing. The Romans called it Occasio and made it a god with a beautiful youthful body who was bald on the back of his head,” Heinrichs says. “The occasion, such as a moment of fashion, ages quickly – hence the wonderful expression, ‘Fortune is bald behind.’”

That’s twice lately I’ve seen the same striking phrase. For a fuller exposition of its meaning I defer to Dr Stephen Maturin, in colourful conversation with Captain Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brian’s historical novel The Mauritius Command:

‘Far be it from me to decry patient laborious staff-work,’ said the Governor. ‘We have seen its gratifying results on this island: but, gentlemen, time and tide wait for no man; and I must remind you that Fortune is bald behind.’

Walking away from the Residence through streets placarded with the Governor’s proclamation, Jack said to Stephen, ‘What is this that Farquhar tells us about Fortune? Is she supposed to have the mange?’

‘I conceive he was referring to the old tag – his meaning was, that she must be seized by the forelock, since once she is passed there is no clapping on to her hair, at all. In the figure she ships none abaft the ears, if you follow me.’

‘Oh, I see. Rather well put: though I doubt those heavy-sided lobsters will smoke the simile.’ He paused, considering, and said, ‘It doesn’t sound very eligible, bald behind; but, however, it is all figurative, all figurative . . .’

Does Jack say it “doesn’t sound very eligible” because bald behind could be interpreted as a reference to a bottom instead of the back of a head? Or is it on account of its obscurity?

In any case, it’s a memorable expression, and a search online shows a popular variation: “Seize opportunity by the beard, for it is bald behind.”


Book review: Sick English, by Janet Byron Anderson

April 18, 2013

Specialist language sometimes spreads beyond its initial domain and becomes part of common currency. From baseball we get home run; from jousting, full tilt. And from medical science we get syndrome, viral, clinical, [X] on steroids, and others – not exactly an epidemic (that’s another one), but a significant set all the same.

For example: a detective novel I read lately (Angels Flight by Michael Connelly) contained the phrase: “the senseless and often random violence that was the city’s cancer”. Intuitively we understand the cancer metaphor, but we might never have thought about it analytically. You’ll be glad to know that someone has.

Janet Byron Anderson, a linguist and medical editor, has written a book about these words. Sick English: Medicalization in the English Language looks at how medical terminology has “migrated from hospital floors and doctors’ offices and taken up dual citizenship on the pages of newspapers, in news reports and quoted speech”.

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Words changing colour like crabs

February 25, 2013

From the Eumaeus episode of Ulysses by James Joyce:

Over his untasteable apology for a cup of coffee, listening to this synopsis of things in general, Stephen stared at nothing in particular. He could hear, of course, all kinds of words changing colour like those crabs about Ringsend in the morning, burrowing quickly into all colours of different sorts of the same sand where they had a home somewhere beneath or seemed to.

After the noncommittal vagueness of “things in general” and “nothing in particular”, I love how the image of local crabs, so suddenly specific, transports us (and Stephen) briefly out of the human domain across to the Dublin coast and the wordless creatures alive in the sand. It’s a strange and surprising analogy and one with a hint of synaesthesia.


Fiscal metaphors and everyday idioms

January 1, 2013

Happy new year, all. I hope you enjoyed the break, or at any rate survived it in one piece.

I have three new posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog to round off 2012. First up, An everyday usage anymore looks at the different ways anymore (and any more) is used:

Macmillan’s page on anymore notes that it is usually used in negatives (We don’t use the car anymore) or questions (Do you knit anymore?). It also appears in conditional contexts (If you fight anymore, I’ll stop the game). And sometimes the negative is not explicit but implied: It’s too busy to visit anymore. So for most people the word is what linguists call a negative polarity item.

But there is a variant construction, generally called positive anymore, that means “nowadays” or “from now on”: I cycle to work anymore. Macmillan Dictionary will be digital-only anymore. This usage dates to the 1850s at least, and seems to be spreading. [read more]

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It’s the time of year for words of the year, and still making headlines beyond this niche – even in Ireland now – is fiscal cliff. So in The steep rise of ‘fiscal cliff’ I assess the term’s effectiveness as a metaphor. Some critics have said it’s unsuitable,

mainly because the economy would more likely drop gradually than with the irreversible abruptness of falling off a cliff edge. The word invites images like the Washington Post’s “going over the cliff” and “fall over the fiscal cliff” – dramatic events compared to what would happen on a fiscal curve or fiscal hill, which have been proposed as alternatives.

But fiscal cliff is unlikely to be displaced. It comprises several constituent metaphors that our minds integrate into a powerful combination. In his anatomy of fiscal cliff at the Huffington Post, George Lakoff mentions conceptual metaphors such as TheFutureIsAhead, which is how we commonly conceptualise time; along with MoreIsUp, SuccessIsUp, ActivityIsMotion and others, all bundled in the fiscal cliff complex. [read more]

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Finally, Try to get over ‘try and’ looks at the synonymity and subtle differences between try to and try and. Although both phrases are standard, try and is sometimes rejected as illogical or just plain wrong, which I think is unfounded:

A recurring objection, as Cathy Relf discovered, is that try and [verb] implies two successive actions, trying and [verb]ing, and that the phrase is therefore ambiguous or misleading. When I asked on Twitter, I received several responses along these lines (as well as insights into how people use them differently).

But this is an overly literal interpretation of an idiom. I’ve never seen anyone raise the same objection to constructions like Go and (find out), Come and (visit), or Be sure and (say hello). The parallels between these and try and are not precise, but the key word is idiom. Trying to impose strict, literal logic on them is misguided. [read more]

The honourable peacay sent me a great survey (PDF) of the semantic and pragmatic differences between try to and try and, but the link seems to be down at the moment. Back at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, don’t miss Michael Rundell’s summary of the highlights of the year, or Kati Sule’s collection of the blog’s 10 most popular posts of 2012.


Irregular verbs, dialects, and sockpuppets

September 24, 2012

I have a few new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First up, Irregular ours considers irregular verbs, whose familiarity obscures their peculiarity – most pronounced in everyday words like be and go:

Irregular verbs can be awkward items for students, requiring to be learned (or learnt) by heart rather than by a simple rule. But they are also historical artefacts that have stubbornly withstood (not withstanded) the pressure to conform, and they shed light on the shapes and structure of English morphology – word formation – as it has unfolded over the centuries.

The post also looks at how new irregulars (snuck, knelt) sometimes appear; how old ones (holp, brung) survive in regional dialects; and how irregular forms, far from being chaotic, tend to follow patterns and sub-rules of their own.

Dialects in dialogue continues the theme, briefly discussing regional variation, how conformity squeezed it out of the emerging standard variety of English, and how authors continued to convey it through the technique of ‘eye dialect’:

Variation in language goes beyond inflection and vocabulary, of course. In everyday encounters it is most noticeable in our accents. As children we learn sounds from the people around us, typically our families, neighbours and peers, and we imbue our accent with qualities all our own. The signature sound of our voice is the result of a unique anatomy, personality, and social environment. . . .

Spelling became largely standardised as Middle English developed gradually into Early Modern English. But authors continued to exploit the features of regional speech, which retained – and still retains – old grammatical and phonetic variants. [read more]

Finally, On the metaphor of sock puppets addresses the term sock puppet in its new online incarnation. Describing it as “the use of a fake identity online for the purposes of talking about oneself, typically in a self-promoting way”, I examine the term’s connotations and appropriateness, especially in light of the etymology of puppet and the other metaphorical uses to which it is put:

The fun and friendly feel of sock puppets, perhaps helped by puppet‘s similarity to poppet and indeed puppy, seems awkwardly at odds with the sneaky behaviour it has come to mean. At first glance the term doesn’t fit well with the usual metaphors of deception, which evoke things that are dark, down, dirty and hidden – not playful and brightly coloured. But when we look at puppet’s other metaphorical uses, we see it’s not such a leap. [read more]

Older posts are available in my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Slightly sinister sock puppet image via Wikimedia Commons.


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