Wack v. whack, and choosing enthusing

October 15, 2014

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The wacky world of ‘wack’ and ‘whack’ looks briefly at these similar (and sometimes overlapping) words with many meanings in informal usage:

Whack meaning ‘hit’, as a noun and verb, is centuries old but remains informal compared to such synonyms as strike, blow, and knock. It may be onomatopoeic in origin, which is why it’s used as a sound effect in comic books and the old Batman TV show. It also has the related meaning ‘kill’, for example in criminal slang.

Wack emerged more recently as a back-formation from wacky. Initially it was a noun used to refer to a crazy or eccentric person – He’s a real wack – with wacko and whacko emerging as slangy offshoots. This was followed by adjectival wack meaning bad, unfashionable, stupid or of low quality, as in the anti-drugs slogan Crack is wack.

I go on to describe some of the ways the two words are used, and the possible limits of their interchangeability.

*

Enthusing about freedom of usage considers (and defends) the much-maligned back-formation enthuse:

Lots of words and usages are criticised or considered ‘incorrect’ when really they’re just colloquial, relatively new, or unsuited to formal use. As Michael Rundell wrote recently, ‘what might be inappropriate in a very formal setting may be perfectly acceptable in a conversation between friends’. . . .

What one generation finds ignorant or ridiculous, the next might adopt without fuss. Enthuse retains a semblance of impropriety, and is still frowned on by conservative writers and readers. Others, myself included, may have nothing against it but prefer periphrastic alternatives like ‘show enthusiasm’ or ‘be enthusiastic’.

The post details some of the criticism and commentary enthuse has received, and summarises its status in different varieties of English.

Older posts are available in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.


Book review: ‘Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue’, by Jonathon Green

June 17, 2014

Just as culture has its counterculture, so language has its nonconformist, outsider self. Why it’s called slang is an enduring mystery to etymologists and lexicographers, but the elusiveness only adds to its intrigue.

Much of slang by its very nature goes unrecorded, or at least did so before the internet turned half the world into quasi-publishers. This makes tracking the history of slang a real challenge – how do you flesh out something that never had a proper skeleton to begin with?

Enter Jonathon Green, aka Mister Slang, whose new book Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue provides a sturdy history. (Its publisher, Atlantic Books, kindly sent me a copy for review.) Language! is a thoroughly engaging account of slang’s development from the early days of criminal cant to the broader current-day incarnations stemming from our cities’ subcultural and multicultural vernaculars.

Born in the street, it resists the niceties of the respectable. It is impertinent, mocking, unconvinced by rules, regulations and ideologies. It is a subset of language that since its earliest appearance has been linked to the lower depths, the criminal, the marginal, the unwanted or even persecuted members of society. It has been censored, ignored, shoved to one side and into the gutter from where it is widely believed to take its inspiration and in which it and its users have a home. It remains something apart, and for many that is where it should stay.

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Book review: ‘Odd Job Man’ by slang lexicographer Jonathon Green

March 19, 2014

Chambers Slang Dictionary by Jonathon Green is my usual first stop for slang queries and browsing, because it’s the biggest such book on my shelf – size matters in lexicography – and also the best. A quote on the spine says, “Dr. Johnson would have moaned with delight”, and while I could live without the thought of Samuel Johnson making pleasure-noises on my shelf, the sentiment holds.

2010 saw publication of the eponymous Green’s Dictionary of Slang, a three-volume behemoth based like the OED on historical principles, giving slang the deep scholarship it deserves – and more than it has ever received before. Green has since updated thousands of its entries in his database, but since GDoS might not see a revised print edition, I only hope it goes online. [Edit: it has done, for subscribers.]

Green’s life and work are the twin topics of his new book Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer, kindly sent to me for review by Jonathan Cape in London. It aims “both to demystify ‘the dictionary’ and to give some glory to slang, one of language’s most disdained of subsets.” These modest aims it achieves, and then some: this is a belter of a book.*

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Not a notion about Irish notions

February 12, 2014

‘The Talking Trees’ by Seán Ó Faoláin is the opening story in the anthology Body and Soul: Irish Short Stories of Sexual Love, edited by David Marcus and published by Poolbeg Press in 1979. It’s a humorous coming-of-age tale of a group of teenage boys in Cork city, containing several explicit references to language.

The boys read comics from England,* “which was where they got all those swanky words like Wham, Ouch, Yaroosh, Ooof and Jolly Well.” Educated by priests and nuns, they are at a loss to understand some of the words they hear used in relation to adult and sexual behaviour.

One day the youngest, Tommy, nicknamed Gong Gong for his “wild bursts of talk like a fire alarm”,

sprayed them with the news that his sister Jenny had been thrown out of class that morning in Saint Monica’s for turning up with a red ribbon in her hair, a mother-of-pearl brooch at her neck and smelling of scent.

‘Ould Sister Eustasia,’ he fizzled, ‘made her go out in the yard and wash herself under the tap, she said they didn’t want any girls in their school who had notions.’

The three gazed at one another, and began at once to discuss all the possible sexy meanings of notions. Georgie had a pocket dictionary. ‘An ingenious contrivance’? ‘An imperfect conception (U.S.)’? ‘Small wares’? It did not make sense.

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In defence of unnecessary words

February 6, 2014

A conservative criticism commonly levelled at new words is that they are “unnecessary” – that we already have a perfectly good and proper word for whatever it is, so why introduce this needless alternative, this objectionable offshoot, this linguistic weed? Because god forbid there should be an overabundance of words. Think of the mess.

Traditionalists decry or resist neologisms they find redundant, those that overlap with existing words rather than fill an obvious gap in the language. There’s simply no need for it, goes the argument. And it’s not just words. New grammatical patterns get the same treatment: after writing about the innovative because X construction, I was told it was ugly and unnecessary.

An aside: Sometimes neologisms are distinguished from nonce-words, words invented for a single occasion or situation. Critics spare these because they’re disposable coinages and not seriously intended as additions to the language. Though sometimes a useful distinction, it’s not always a clear one; in the rapid everyday exchange of language, no one knows what will catch on.

Tom Gauld - cartoon for the Guardian on neologisms and forgotten words[Cartoon by Tom Gauld for the Guardian]

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‘Not a word’ prolly ain’t an argument anyways

February 4, 2014

A trio of tweets to introduce the topic:

My question about dictionaries was paired with this snapshot of the @nixicon Twitter account, about which more below:

Barack Obama use of madder - young people and dictionaries

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On privilege-checking and amazey amazeballs

January 16, 2014

I have two new posts to report at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First: Check your privilege and know thy selfie offers some thoughts on the words and phrases of 2013. It includes my own pick, because X, which anticipated the American Dialect Society’s selection.

The focus, though, is on privilege-checking, a phrase that didn’t feature in other WOTY discussions, and remains niche, but whose emergence I’ve found especially interesting:

[C]heck your privilege, described as “one of the great political rallying cries of 2013”, is increasingly used in debates about social justice and power, typically directed at people who are saying something from a position of unconscious privilege.

For example, a middle-class white male might remark on how little abuse there is in social media, not having realised or enquired about its extent for people in less socially powerful positions: he has failed to check his privilege. As the Geek Feminism Wiki puts it, a privileged person “is not necessarily prejudiced (sexist, racist, etc) as an individual, but may be part of a broader pattern of *-ism even though unaware of it”.

Read the rest for further notes on privilege-checking and more familiar WOTY candidates like selfie and -splaining.

*

Is ‘amazeballs’ still amaze? considers a word perhaps more loathed than loved but which shows no immediate signs of going away – indeed, the BBC called it one of 2013’s most overused words.

The BBC article quotes lexicographer Ian Brookes as saying, ‘You know a word has arrived in language when people use it without needing to explain it’ – but in this case I think most people knew what amazeballs meant the first time they heard it. It’s pretty self-explanatory, as are other amaze- coinages like amazetastic, amazetabulous, and amazeroonie (in decreasing order of Google hit count).

The short adjectival form amaze – which gave rise to the neologisms above – also remains common, and is a good example of conversion or zero derivation, where a word’s grammatical category is changed without altering the spelling. Amazeballs and company all testify to our love of language play, and specifically the fun of new words.

Odder even than the word’s productiveness in the linguistic domain is the (true) story of Kellogg’s and Tim Burgess, which I summarise in the post. For older articles you can browse the archives.


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