Portmonsteau words and films: They Came From the Blender!

July 11, 2014

At the Galway Film Fleadh this week I saw It Came From Connemara!!, a documentary about the great Roger Corman’s time producing films in the west of Ireland, specifically Connemara in Co. Galway – a short drive west of my adopted city. (Fleadh is Irish for festival or feast.)

It Came From Connemara!! – NSFW trailer here – is a fun, fond look back at that productive and sometimes controversial stint in the late 1990s and the lasting effects of Corman’s presence on the Irish TV and film industry. (The friend I saw it with worked there as an extra, and the audience included many of the crew from those years.)

It came from connemara - by dearg films brian reddin feat. roger corman

Read the rest of this entry »

The developmental overkill of language

June 1, 2014

In his excellent natural history of language, The Power of Babel, linguist John McWhorter describes dialects – and it’s all dialects – as “developed far beyond the call of duty”. He’s referring to the way languages tend to become structurally and idiosyncratically baroque:

Left to its own devices, a human language will tend to elaborate into overt expression of subdivisions of semantic space that would not even occur to many humans as requiring attention in speech and become riddled with exceptions and rules of thumb and things only learnable by rote. This process tends to achieve its most extreme expression among groups long isolated, but any language that has been spoken for tens of thousands of years exhibits some considerable degree of “developmental overkill.” It is this feature of human language that contributes to why learning other languages as an adult is such a challenge. No language has been goodly enough to remain completely tidy and predictable, no language has not stuck its nose somewhere where it didn’t really need to go, no language classifies objects and concepts according to principles so universally intuitive that any human could pick them up in an afternoon, and in none of them are there classifications indexed to currently perceptible cultural concepts in anything better than a highly approximate manner.

This tendency towards complex over-elaboration manifests inevitably in any language that has been around long enough. The converse is that new languages have relatively little such ornamentation, which emerges only through centuries or millennia of “sound erosions and changes, grammaticalizations, rebracketings, and semantic change”.

Pidgins are simplified languages, largely stripped of unnecessary complication, that arise for utilitarian reasons between groups who lack a common tongue. So when these are “born again” as full-fledged languages, in the form of creoles, the results are comparatively free of overdevelopment – before the engine of encrustation gets going again for subsequent generations.

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.

‘Emphatic’ quotation marks and consonant doubling

March 29, 2014

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, one on errant punctuation and one on a sometimes tricky aspect of spelling and morphology.

The ‘emphatic’ use of quotation marks summarises accepted uses of quotation marks, including scare quotes, before considering a common but non-standard use:

Sometimes people use quotation marks to stress a word or phrase, and this clashes with the general understanding of how the marks – and scare quotes – are properly used. In a comment to my recent article on the use of apostrophes, Kristen said she found this habit troublesome, offering the example ‘fresh’ fish, which inadvertently casts doubt on the freshness of the fish – the very opposite impression to what’s intended.

If you saw a window sign for ‘homemade’ stew or a label promising ‘delicious’ waffles, would the punctuation affect how you imagine the food? What about a cosmetic product that’s ‘good’ for your hair, or a claim that a service is ‘free’?

All the examples are real, found in the “Quotation Mark” Abuse pool on Flickr. My post presents the case for the defence, then provides some truly puzzling examples.


Patterns of consonant doubling looks at whether and when to double consonants at the end of suffixed words. Fluent speakers, who tend to have a feel for the rules,

know that nod forms nodded and red redder (doubling the d), yet brood forms brooded and dead deader (no doubling). Turning flop into an adjective by adding the suffix -y gives us floppy, doubling the p, but soap becomes soapy, with no doubling.

Vowels play an important role. Notice the short vowel in nod and flop and the relatively long ones in brood and soap. Short vowels tend to mean we double the final consonant; long vowels tend to mean we don’t. The latter are often detectable by the word’s ending with e after a consonant: compare mop (mopped) and mope (moped), tap (tapped) and tape (taped), pin (pinned) and pine (pined), and similar pairs.

The article goes on to explain the role played by syllable stress (compare offered and referred), notes exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions, and concludes with the best possible rule for dealing with this messy area.

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome here or at Macmillan; older articles on words and language are available in the archive.

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.

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.


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.

Fossil words, usage collisions, and Latin plurals

July 10, 2013

Time for an update on my recent writing for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I have three new articles to report.

Colliding with common sense and usage looks at a language peeve over the word collide (and collision, etc.), which says you can use these words:

only when both items in a collision are moving. So if you cycle into a stationary gate, that’s not a collision, but if the gate is swinging at the time, it is a collision. Maybe you find this logical somehow – or maybe, like me, you think it’s awkward and silly. Or it would be, if it were an actual rule.

In the article, I summarise the history of this belief, how it was spread by Bill Bryson and Theodore Bernstein, among others, and what usage experts say about it.


Fossil words of yore in the offing is a brief survey and description of lexical fossils. If the term is new to you, let me explain:

we may wait with bated breath for something in the offing, but it’s unlikely that anything else in our experience is ever bated, or that we’ve made any other use of the noun offing. (Unless we’re sailors; offing can mean the part of the deep sea visible from the shore.)

These words are known as fossil words, because although they are no longer productive in the language – their creative capacity is not in fine fettle – they have been preserved in set phrases, idioms and contexts. Like physical fossils, they offer a glimpse of earlier times, throwing a light on language from days of yore.

As I go on to show, it’s not just words and short phrases that get fossilised: entire sentences do too, for example if they’re tied to some popular ritual or tradition.


Finally, The minutiae of Latin plurals addresses the consistently curious nature of English’s curiously inconsistent plurals, specifically Latin imports. I begin with a comparison of personas and personae, and note that:

The two spellings’ coexistence – some call it competition – is not unusual: witness appendixes and appendices, formulas and formulae, millenniums and millennia, referendums and referenda, stadiums and stadia, and thesauruses and thesauri, all used regularly. Neither one in any pair has ousted the other, though some eventually will. Millennia overtook its rival in the 1930s and is likely to maintain its supremacy.

There are no hard and fast rules about which plural to use and when. In certain cases the Latin is more formal or even affected, but not predictably so. Occasionally the two spellings differentiate in meaning.

See if you can think of examples of this last phenomenon, where the Latin plural and the anglicised plural of the same word have diverged semantically. Then read the rest for data on Latin plurals becoming English singulars, and other such fun.

[Archive of my posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog]


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