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.

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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.

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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]

Giving out, Irish style

September 7, 2013

The phrasal verb give out has several common senses:

distribute – “she gave out free passes to the gig”

emit – “the machine gave out a distinctive hum”

break down, stop working – “at the end of the marathon her legs gave out”

become used up – “their reserves of patience finally gave out”

declare, make known – “management gave out that it was unsatisfied with productivity levels”

In Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale I read an example of this last sense: “At the moment the Communist Party is giving out that he was off his head.” Had Fleming been Irish, this line would be ambiguous – Ireland has another give out, a common informal usage meaning complain, grumble, moan; or criticise, scold, reprimand, tell off.

Read the rest of this entry »


On caring less, and a new abbreviation (Ћ)

August 15, 2013

I have a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Do we need to abbreviate ‘the’? looks at a recent orthographic innovation: Ћ, intended as a one-character symbol for the. If there were a pressing need for such an abbreviation, Ћ would stand a better chance of catching on. But we have lots of more familiar alternatives:

Ћ is already a character known as Tshe in the Cyrillic script, which will help the symbol’s availability. (The resemblance is apparently coincidental.) Ultimately, though, its success as shorthand for the depends on whether people adopt it and make its use habitual and normal.

And while I wish Mathis the best of luck, I can’t see Ћ catching on very widely. Some people already abbreviate the as de, da, th, t/ or d, though these are effectively restricted to informal contexts such as text messages and Twitter. In Old English a þ (“thorn”) with a stroke was used the same way. Complete omission of the article is more common…

You can read the rest here. Will you be adopting Ћ?

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Next up: Could you care less? is about the expression I could care less and the constant cavilling it attracts. In David Mitchell’s entertaining video at the Guardian, he protests that the phrase implies you do care and is “useless as an indicator of how much you care”. I suggest that that’s true only

in a fantasy land where the expression and interpretation of language are tone deaf and bound strictly by formal logic. The point about idioms is that that’s not how they work. . . . Treating idioms this way is – to use Lane Greene’s choice phrase – “selective hyper-literalism”.

In speech, the stress pattern of an idiom can affect its interpretation, and so it is with I could care less. . . . As a Negative Polarity Item, it has its own independent negative force – like I could give a damn, which is synonymous with I couldn’t give a damn.

Read on if you couldn’t not care more or less about this, or for older articles visit the archive.


Bulling “ar buile” in Irish English

July 16, 2013

In Ireland, to be bulling means to be angry – typically in a visible and maybe voluble way, and sometimes with comical connotations.1 I used to hear it now and then in my childhood and teens, but haven’t come across it much in recent years. Maybe raging has eaten into its niche.

So I enjoyed this reminder in Declan Hughes’s crime novel All the Dead Voices (see my old bookmash):

‘And he was like, we need a new way to operate, we can’t keep taking our rivals out, we can’t keep doing things the old way. The Lamp Comerford way. Charlie said Lamp was bulling when he heard this, he felt he was being sidelined.’

You might assume the word comes from the noun bull and the animal’s reputation for bad-tempered stampedes. This may have reinforced the usage, but I think its origin is the Irish word buile “madness, frenzy”. To be ar buile /ər ’bwɪlʲə/ (roughly “er bwill-ih”) is to be in a rage or fury, a deargbuile /’dʒærəg,bwɪlʲə/ is literally a red rage (cf. red mist), and a fear buile /’fʲær ’bwɪlʲə/ is a madman.2

In Hiberno-English the expression bulling to do something is similar to the English mad to do something, i.e., very eager. If someone is bulling to go to the match, it implies an overwhelming desire to go to the match, without necessarily any anger or desperation.

My Irish-English dictionary has ar buile chun rud a dhéanamh, translated as “crazy to do something”, but I didn’t know this idiom and found the gloss ambiguous: does it mean extremely eager (= “mad keen”) or something more unhinged? Enquiries on Twitter were inconclusive, though @ExposieRosie said it suggests frantic rather than keen.

Another open question is how old bullingangry is. Jonathon Green’s Chambers Slang Dictionary dates the sense to the 2000s, but I know it was used in the 1980s and 1990s, and my father says he remembers it from his (1950s) childhood. It may well be much older than that.

Edit:

John Cowan, in a comment, has reminded me of the traditional Irish song An Poc ar Buile (“The Mad Puck Goat”). Some background here, and a performance from the Chieftains and friends below:

[archive of Hiberno-English posts]

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1 I know bulling has other meanings, but I’m ignoring most of them here.

2 Phonetic renderings are approximate, and suggestions are welcome.


I didn’t cycle up the Liffey on a bicycle

May 22, 2013

Edna O’Brien’s book Girl With Green Eyes has a romantic line involving bicycles in Dublin:

Ah, the bloom of you, I love your North-Circular-Road-Bicycle-Riding-Cheeks.

It’s a sweet declaration ending in an impressive hyphenated string (though if I were editing it I would separate cheeks from the compound and reduce the capitalisation: North-Circular-Road-bicycle-riding cheeks).

In a modest correspondence between books decades apart, Declan Hughes’s Irish detective novel The Dying Breed has another elaborate compound phrase constructed with the help of bicycle imagery:

I made a face at that, my d’you-think-I-cycled-up-the-Liffey-on-a-bicycle face.

When I tweeted that sentence I was treated to a few variations on the theme: Belfast’s D’you think I floated down the Lagan in a bubble? (@charlieconnelly), and Glasgow’s D’ye think ah came up the Clyde on a water biscuit/banana boat? (@ozalba; @Yanbustone).

There are many versions of this idiom, often beginning Do you think…, You must think…, or I didn’t… More (or less) familiar lines include: Do you think I came down in the last shower?, You must think I was born yesterday, and I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday.

I love the water biscuit one, but for some reason I relate most strongly to cycling on the Liffey – so long as I steer clear of Gogarty’s swans.


Centring around phonetic alphabets

March 11, 2013

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about idioms and alphabets, specifically centre around and “SaypU”.

In Centring around a usage disagreement, I discuss the phrase centre around and the regular complaints that it’s somehow wrong or illogical:

Centre around has been in use for about a century and a half, and no one seemed to mind it until the 1920s. Then someone cried foul, or rather illogic, and since then many have found fault with its apparent contravention of mathematical propriety. Nowadays it’s a regular source of annoyance, some of it extreme: one reader said seeing it in an article sent her “screaming to Strunk and White”. I worry for her blood pressure.

Critics object that a centre is “technically a single point” (Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage) and you can’t physically centre around something. But if centres were single points, city centres would be impossibly crowded.

The problem lies with the tension between mathematical logic and idiomatic usage. (You can guess which side I’m on.) I’m also interested in what motivates people to say centre around, and I touch on that later in the post.

Do you use the phrase, avoid it, like it, hate it, or have no strong feelings either way?

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Next: Can shared alphabets foster peace? follows up on a recent BBC report about a new phonetic alphabet, SaypU, whose creator hopes it can make the world more peaceful and harmonious. Historically this is nothing unusual:

Moral and political aspirations have motivated inventors of languages and other communication systems for centuries. Esperanto is perhaps the most famous. Its creator, Ludwik Zamenhof, was an idealist who felt the “heavy sadness” of linguistic diversity and believed it was “the only, or at least the primary force which divides the human family into enemy parts”. So he created Esperanto to foster communication and understanding between people of different languages.

But would speaking the same language really make people more inclined to get on? . . . [T]here’s no reason to assume greater communicative overlap would engender significantly more kindness and mutual consideration among people.

The post looks briefly at whether the project measures up in practical terms, and throws the IPA and Douglas Adams into the mix.

For older articles, see my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.


Words are tasty!

February 18, 2013

Jay Kinney - eating words - Anarchy Comics 1, 1978

Image from Anarchy Comics #1, 1978, edited by Jay Kinney.

For readers unfamiliar with the idiom: eat one’s words means retract what one has said, take back a statement, admit an error. So it’s similar to eating humble pie (whose origins are surprisingly visceral), and worth comparing with laughing on the other side of your face.

“You gotta break an omelet to make an egg”, of course, reverses the natural entropic order, playing with a proverb (“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”) to make a political point. If you’re interested in the comic’s history, here’s a recent interview with Kinney at BoingBoing.


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