Word frequency game

August 13, 2014

The Red Words Game from Macmillan Dictionary is a new and addictive bit of fun that tests your awareness of word frequencies. It’s named after a feature of the dictionary, the so-called red words and stars.

The idea is that the core vocabulary of English has 7500 ‘red words’, comprising 90% of the language in Macmillan’s huge general corpus.¹ Macmillan Dictionary gives red words special treatment, describing their grammar, collocations, register, and so on. Three-star words are the 2500 most common, two-star words are next, then one-star words.

To play the game you guess how many stars a random series of words have, for 90 seconds. I’ve been scoring 225–300, but to get more than 300 I’d need more luck and free time than I have at the moment. It’s just maddening enough to make you feel hard done by and want another go, like when I had 250 points with 30 seconds to go and got every answer wrong after that.

There are bonus points for fast answers, so don’t dally. The tricky bit is not letting the answers distract you (implication has three stars, anonymous just one!?).² Watch out too for grammatical class, which appears under the word, as sometimes it will affect your answer. For example, the verb find has three stars but the noun has just one.

If you want to pass a few entertaining minutes, go play. It’s even subliminally educational.

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¹ Link and description updated for accuracy.

² I suspect anonymous will gain a star or two when more recent data are included in the categorisation.


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:

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Foclóir: A new English–Irish dictionary

January 23, 2013

A quick follow-up on a tweet – or should I say tvuít – from yesterday: Foclóir, a new English–Irish dictionary, has just gone online. It looks great; alongside its translations it offers detailed grammatical data, example sentences, and sound files from native Irish speakers.

The sound files are a particular treat, offered in the three major dialects of Connacht, Munster and Ulster Irish. Vocabulary-wise, although the dictionary is far from complete, there’s already more than enough to reward repeat visits:

Focloir English Irish dictionary - headword blogThe dictionary is being published on a phased basis, and the full content won’t be online until end-2014. The entries published in January 2013 consist of approximately 30% of the eventual content, however this range covers approximately 80% of general English usage.

Foclóir was created by Foras na Gaeilge and is based on the Dante lexical database. Preparation of a print edition will begin in 2015, once all the dictionary material has been published online. I’m making it my primary internet reference for English–Irish translation.

[via RTÉ News]


Crowd-sourced dictionaries and rare portmanteaus

October 25, 2012

I have a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Links and excerpts now follow.

Dictionary signals vs. noise looks at the business of crowd-sourcing in dictionary-making. (Crowd-sourcing means outsourcing a task to the general public or another unspecified group.) Some recent discussion about this might give the impression that the field of lexicography is destined for an Urban Dictionary–style makeover. This won’t happen.

It seems to me more a matter of dictionaries finding different ways to integrate public input, and this is something they’ve always done to varying degrees.

Urban Dictionary is an extreme case in that its entries are entirely user-generated; it is therefore best consulted with a certain scepticism. This is not to say UD is unhelpful: it’s sometimes the best or even the only place to find a plausible explanation for contemporary slang, especially the more faddish or explicit sort. But unless several definitions converge on a sense, a pinch of salt or a confirming source tends to be necessary.

For more of my thoughts on Urban Dictionary, and why professionally curated dictionaries are in no danger of displacement, you can read the rest here.

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Lesser spotted portmanteau words briefly introduces the history and structure of portmanteau words, aka blends, before coining a few fanciful examples (which turned out to be unoriginal, but anyway):

Blending is a common source of new words because it’s fun – a kind of language play – and relatively straightforward. So when people neologise, whether whimsically or with more serious intent, they often coin portmanteau words. It’s an easy way to combine two ideas: just think of a word and blend it with another. From dictionary, for example, we might conjure a contradictionary: a dictionary of paradoxes; and a benedictionary: a dictionary of blessings.

Many such coinages are destined to be short-lived or remain limited to certain sublanguages. Others, as we’ve seen, eventually enter our everyday vocabulary.

The post was prompted by a unusual sense of portmanteau word which I encountered in an old book on Beethoven. You can find out about that – and ponder whether banoffee pie has peaked – at the original post.

Comments here or there are welcome, and if you’re new to this and inclined to read more, there’s always my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.


A radical awareness of language’s mutability

March 28, 2012

I recently read Henry Hitchings’s Defining the world: The extraordinary story of Dr Johnson’s dictionary, and I recommend it heartily to those of you who enjoy its principal fields of interest: words, history, literature, biography, and lexicography.

As well as recreating the history of Johnson’s Dictionary, which was first published in 1755, Hitchings’s book serves as a frank and affectionate portrait of Samuel Johnson himself, and as a vivid profile of 18th-century England. It’s an elegant and enthralling account that includes a keen analysis of Johnson’s linguistic attitudes and shows how these developed over the course of creating his mighty work.

Before beginning the Dictionary in earnest, Johnson wrote a lengthy Plan of an English Dictionary, in which he presented his ambitions for the book and his suitability for the task. It was addressed to the Earl of Chesterfield in order to win his patronage. Chesterfield, we read, was “obsessed with propriety of usage . . . and with embalming or even bettering the language”. Johnson said the dictionary’s chief intent would be “to preserve the purity, and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom”.

The order of these aspirations is no accident. Johnson’s characterisation of English as “licentious” and “inconstant” has what Hitchings refers to as “a distinctly moral cast”. But although the emphasis on stability was “consistent with [Johnson's] own political instincts”, Hitchings suggests that it was probably exaggerated for Chesterfield’s sake: years later the Dictionary’s preface would contain a sober and eloquent acknowledgement of the irresistibility of linguistic change.

From Defining the world:

Linguistic conservatives like Chesterfield were afraid that unchecked changes in general usage would cause the English of the eighteenth century to become as bewildering to its inheritors as the language of Chaucer was to them. They were correct, of course, in seeing that their language was in flux. Then and now, the engines of this change include international commerce and travel, which involve contact with other languages; shifts in political doctrine or consensus; translations, which frequently preserve the idiom of their originals; fashion (in Johnson’s age, the nascent cult of sensibility), whose adherents require a special figurative language to articulate their refined and rarefied perspectives; and advertising, which uses foreign terms to connote mystique. These transfusions are what keep a language alive, but this is a modern view. Chesterfield could not begin to see that change was a force for the good. With time, Johnson’s conservatism — the desire to ‘fix’ the language — gave way to a radical awareness of language’s mutability. But from the outset the impulse to standardize and straighten English out was in competition with the belief that one should chronicle what’s there, and not just what one would like to see.

250 years later, Johnson’s Dictionary remains “not merely readable, but vital”, Hitchings writes, its every page brimming with philological lore and choice quotation. It is not just a landmark in lexicography but a great work of literature, described by Robert Burchfield as “the only dictionary compiled by a writer of the first rank”.*

The sixth edition of the Dictionary (1785) is available in multiple formats from the Internet Archive: Volume 1 and Volume 2.

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* My Tumblr blog has a short passage by Burchfield on semantic drift.


The enormity of Webster’s Third

November 4, 2010

“I find righteous denunciations of the present state of the language no less dismaying than the present state of the language.” – Lionel Trilling

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, first published in 1961, was among the most contentious reference books of its time. It signalled a clear editorial shift from its 1934 predecessor, most controversially in that it empirically described conventional English usage more than it prescribed ‘correct’ usage (as Webster’s Second had done). Where W2 had liberally applied labels like erroneous, incorrect, improper, vulgar, and ludicrous, W3 preferred to label words as substandard and nonstandard, and did so only infrequently.

The response to its publication was mixed, to put it mildly. Some luminaries accused Webster’s of abandoning its authority; others denounced the book’s permissiveness (unlike W2, it included many taboo words; this remains a sticky subject). Wilson Follett described its makers as “patient and dedicated saboteurs”, declaring their work “a scandal and a disaster” and fulminating that it had “thrust upon us a dismaying assortment of the questionable, the perverse, the unworthy, and the downright outrageous”. Jacques Barzun said that he didn’t read it all, but that he laughed at least once on every page he read.

So much for the sobriety of Merriam-Webster’s cardinal virtues of dictionary making: accuracy, clearness, and comprehensiveness.

The New York Times advised its staff to keep referring to W2, feeling that its successor could “only accelerate the deterioration of the mother tongue”. The National Review found W3 “big, expensive and ugly” and said it had “only one standard – inclusiveness”. The Journal of the American Bar Association called it “a flagrant example of lexicographic irresponsibility”, while the Richmond News Leader said that no school or library was compelled to buy it,* and that “no English teacher need respect its corruptions” [via]. Dwight Macdonald, in an influential savaging in the New Yorker, called it a “massacre” and wondered “where completeness ends and madness begins”. He said it had “made a sop of the solid structure of English, and encouraged the language to eat up himself”.

Solid structure? Himself?! At this point I need to remind myself that yes, he was writing about the English language.

A few critics were less caustic and appreciated W3’s non-judgemental approach and modern linguistic sense. (Though they generally had reservations too.) Mario Pei noted its “many commendable features”, predicting that it would “enjoy a healthy life, even if not too prolonged”, while Robert Burchfield described it as “a bold landmark fashioned to meet the needs of the present”. Ethel Strainchamps praised the dictionary in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch review, then wrote a follow-up article that addressed the shortcomings of some of the criticism. She believed the attacks suggested a “cultural lag”, about which more below.

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