Acronyms, idioms, and spelling program(me)s

October 15, 2013

I’ve a few new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Links and excerpts follow.

An FYI on acronyms clarifies the difference between acronyms and initialisms, before showing how technological changes have affected them, as revealed in the recent update to Macmillan Dictionary:

Some new entries, such as API, BYOD, and QR code, explicitly reflect the significant role of technology in altering the lexical and cultural landscape. With the spread of wi-fi, the online–offline divide has become increasingly blurred, so it’s no surprise that some internet-born abbreviations have become more word-like as they’ve spread beyond jargon and slang. ROFL all you like, but people have begun to rofle.

Read on to witness more newcomers to the acronym scene, new definitions for old-timers, and my first (and surely last) use of YOLO.

*

An idiom that has its cake and eats it looks at a puzzling old expression that “crumbles under examination”:

Part of the trouble is the order of events. The phrase makes more sense when recast as eat your cake and have it too, since this is more self-evidently impossible. Indeed, it’s how the phrase was first constructed. The later sequence of having your cake and eating it arose in the mid-18th century, and appears to have overtaken the original in the early 20th.

Alfred Cheney Johnston cakeThere are other problems with the phrase too, such as the obvious question of why anyone would want to hold onto cake in the first place: unlike the proverbial miser’s gold, it doesn’t keep. You can share the puzzlement here – and the cake, if there’s any left.

*

Finally, Get with the spelling program(me) addresses something often overlooked about the familiar subject of UK/US spelling differences: why does BrE have programme but not anagramme or diagramme? History has the answer; but first, an etymological note:

The modern term programming language accidentally plays on the word’s etymology. Program comes from Late Latin programma ‘proclamation’, from a combination of pro- ‘forth’ + graphein ‘to write’ (the same root we find in telegram and anagram). Curiously, program is how the word entered English in the 17th century, and was used especially by Scottish writers.

Read the rest at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, or delve into my archives for more.

[Old cake image via Wikimedia Commons]

Folk etymology: from hiccup to hiccough

July 2, 2013

Folk etymology is when a word or phrase is changed – phonetically, orthographically, or both – to better fit a mistaken idea about its origin. It’s why some folk call a hiccup a hiccoughhic-cough may seem more plausible or comprehensible. The original impulse, says Arnold Zwicky, is “to find meaningful parts in otherwise unparsable expressions”.

Asparagus officinalis, also "sparrow grass"

Asparagus officinalis, also “sparrow grass”

So asparagus is sometimes written as sparrow grass, much as chaise longuechaise lounge and coleslawcoldslaw (which also count as eggcorns – sort of distributively limited folk etymologies). Many remain incorrect or restricted to small groups, but some become standard: penthouse came from pentis, lapwing from lappewinke, and hangnail is a modified Old English agnail.

Most people would probably assume that shamefaced comes from “shame-faced”, but the word was once shamefast, literally “restrained by shame” (fast as in “held firm”). The idea of shame manifesting in a person’s face motivated and sustained the alteration.

Read the rest of this entry »


You can pronounce “GIF” any way you like

May 24, 2013

An impressively silly debate resumed this week over the “correct” pronunciation of GIF. Steve Wilhite, who invented the format, prefers “jif”, and at the recent Webby Awards he shared this opinion (tongue presumably in cheek) through a projected GIF set to Richard Strauss.*

It's pronounced 'jif' not 'gif' - Steve Wilhite at 2013 Webby Awards

Mr Wilhite knows the OED accepts both common pronunciations, hard-g /gɪf/ as in gift and soft-g /dʒɪf/ as in gist. (As do other dictionaries and all right-thinking people.) But the lexicographers, he told the New York Times, “are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”

End of story? Well, no. This is English: it’s messy. It misbehaves.

Read the rest of this entry »


Texting is an expansion of our linguistic repertoire

April 23, 2013

Last month I wrote about the dramatic, grammatic evolution of LOL,  referring to two talks on texting by linguist John McWhorter in which he describes LOL’s shift from straightforward initialism (“laughing out loud”) to pragmatic particle marking empathy and shared experience.*

One of McWhorter’s talks was not online at the time, but it appeared yesterday and is well worth watching if you’re interested in texting as a form of communication:

What texting is, despite the fact that it involves the brute mechanics of something that we call writing, is fingered speech. That’s what texting is. Now we can write the way we talk.

McWhorter discusses the differences between speech and writing and how they bleed into one another, and he demonstrates some of texting’s emerging structures and innovations, for instance slash as a “new information marker”.

He also tackles the myth that texting implies a decline in our linguistic abilities (an argument developed in more detail in David Crystal’s book Txtng: The gr8 db8). Says McWhorter:

What we’re seeing is a whole new way of writing that young people are developing, which they’re using alongside their ordinary writing skills – and that means that they’re able to do two things. Increasing evidence is that being bilingual is cognitively beneficial. That’s also true of being bidialectal, and it’s certainly true of being bidialectal in terms of your writing. And so texting actually is evidence of a balancing act that young people are using today – not consciously, of course, but it’s an expansion of their linguistic repertoire.

Here is “Txtng is killing language. JK!!!”:

*

* My post was since translated into Chinese,  if anyone would like to read it that way.


The dramatic grammatic evolution of “LOL”

March 5, 2013

LOL, the poster child of txtspk and internet lingo, began as a handy abbreviation for laughing out loud (and sometimes lots of love). But it has come to symbolise a whole mode of discourse: LOLspeak is a quasi-dialect unto itself, albeit mainly the preserve of unwitting LOLcats.

Some people even say lol offline to indicate amusement without having to go to the trouble of laughing. (I’m sure these people laugh normally, too.) But there’s more to LOL than meets the eye. Anne Curzan writes at Lingua Franca that the meaning of LOL has changed – it often doesn’t mean laughing out loud. You might have noticed this.

Read the rest of this entry »


STRAC, a military acronym — and backronym

January 3, 2013

While reading Robert Crais’s detective novel L.A. Requiem, I came across an unfamiliar word (italics in the original):

First thing McConnell noticed was that this young officer was strac. His uniform spotless, the creases in his pants and shirt sharp, the black leather gear and shoes shined to a mirror finish. Pike was a tall man, as tall as Krantz, but where Krantz was thin and bony, Pike was filled out and hard, his shirt across his back and shoulders and upper arms pulled taut.

What followed the mention of strac implied its probable meaning, but to satisfy my curiosity I had to look it up. First port of call was Jonathon Green’s Chambers Slang Dictionary, which says it’s a US military acronym for Strategic Army Corps. I might have guessed this had the term been used in upper case.

United States Coast Guard Academy graduationStrac gave rise to stract – the headword in Green’s entry – a US prison usage from the 1990s meaning “neat and clean in appearance and dress”. Wiktionary’s glossary of military slang suggests an overlap, saying STRAC is US Army slang for:

“a well organized, well turned-out soldier, (pressed uniform, polished brass and shined boots).” A proud, competent trooper who can be depended on for good performance in any circumstance.

Chambers has a helpful note on the term’s history, quoting Dave Wilton on the American Dialect Society email list:

“STRAC.” Originally an [sic] 1950s acronym for Strategic Army Corps, a group of four elite divisions maintained at a high readiness for overseas deployment. It began to be used as an adjective, to be “STRAC” was to be prepared [...] After the demise of the Corps, the adjectival use hung on. A new, unofficial backronym was formed for it, “Skilled, Tough, Ready, Around the Clock.” It was very common in the US Army of the 1980s.

There’s no entry in the American Heritage Dictionary or Shorter OED, while offerings in the usual online spots are meagre. Urban Dictionary has two entries for “Skilled, Tough, Ready Around the Clock”, and one for “Strong, Tough, Ready Around the Clock”. For STRACT, Wikipedia offers “Strategically Ready And Combat Tough”, and says STRAC units

were those designated to be on high alert to move anywhere in 72 hours or less; as slang, means tight, together, by the book; when said with sarcasm by a combat unit about a REMF (rear echelon mother fuckers) unit it refers to stupid soldiers without combat experience.

There are even more alternatives listed at the Acronym Finder, some presumably backronyms, including “Standing Tall Right Around the Clock” and “Strategic, Tactical and Ready for Action in Combat”.

But the narrower, appearance-related meaning – phonetically suggestive of strict, sharpstraight, smart and strapping – is an interesting development. UD’s sole entry for stract has negative connotations: “overly concerned with standards and minute detail”, but these may not extend beyond one person’s impressions.

[image of U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduation from Wikimedia Commons]

How do you pronounce GIF? Does it matter?

December 12, 2012

When Oxford Dictionaries named the acronym GIF (graphics interchange format) as their US word of the year (in its verb use), debates resurfaced over its correct pronunciation. The short answer is that both /gɪf/ and /dʒɪf/ are fine – you can say GIF with the hard g of gift or the soft g of gin. Or you can say the letters: “gee eye eff”.

Some people insist on soft-g GIF, as in “jif”. They say it’s “up to the creators”, and “jif” is what the format’s inventors indicated. But this presumes a non-existent authority: the creators don’t get to lay down a planet-wide law, nor does anyone on their behalf. Pronunciation develops through general agreement – it’s up to everyone who uses the term – and most people seem to prefer hard-g GIF.

Philosoraptor meme - Is it 'gif' or 'gif'Gi- is inherently ambiguous, pronunciation-wise. We have hard-g gift, gills, giddy, give and giggles, soft-g gin, giblets, Gilly, giant and gist.* (There’s a Scandinavian flavour to the hard-g set.) So it’s not surprising the pronunciation of a new gi- term would split this way. But there aren’t many gif- words apart from gift, so it’s not surprising either that hard-g GIF predominates. The g‘s origin in graphics is another factor in its favour.

But there’s no question both are acceptable: Oxford Dictionaries sanction both, as do Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary, each of them based on extensive data of what people say. There is more than one right way – there often is – and declaring otherwise doesn’t make it otherwise.

Soft-g GIF may gradually fade, or it may retain minor currency. A continued split would not be a problem. Millions of people pronounce schedule with a sh- sound; other millions go with sk-. Communication is roomy enough to contain such discrepancies, and if confusion arises people are smart and imaginative enough to figure it out. Though I can’t speak for Philosoraptor.

Out of curiosity, how do you pronounce GIF? Feel free to vote in this poll or to add your thoughts below.

*

* In phonetics, /g/ is a voiced velar stop and /dʒ/ is a voiced palato-alveolar affricate.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,495 other followers