Book review: ‘Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?’ by Steven Poole

December 9, 2013

Of all the varieties of English criticised for degrading the language, one is deplored so routinely it’s practically an international pastime. Call it management speak, business jargon, bureaucratese or corporatese, the shifty locutions and absurd metaphors of office lingo receive a constant barrage of disdain.

Such jargon has its uses, of course. It can be efficient, creative, even genuinely evocative. But more often this brand of self-important communication (or in some cases anti-communication) irritates and provokes, warping and clouding ideas in ways that are at once cynical and ridiculous, as Dilbert repeatedly shows. And the takeaway across the piece is that office jargon will keep circling back, going forward.

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Book review: Netymology: From Apps to Zombies, by Tom Chatfield

June 7, 2013

Given the perennial popularity of linguistic declinism, a common contemporary version of which is “the internet/texting is destroying language”, it comes as a relief and a pleasure to read a balanced appraisal of internet language itself. Tom Chatfield’s new book Netymology: From Apps to Zombies is a sensible, fascinating, and enthusiastic exploration of the origins and usage of digital terminology; in its own words, it’s a linguistic celebration of the digital world.

Whether you’re a l33t user or a relative n00b, you’ll find much to enjoy and ponder in Netymology. Its 100 short chapters, each 2–3 pages long, offer informative snippets on such cultural byroads and subcultural thoroughfares as the mechanics of keyboards, the Beasts of Baidu, the origins of Pac-Man’s name, and the Vatican’s patron saint of the internet (really), to take a few examples virtually at random.

Netymology covers a lot of ground but is never heavy going. From a wealth of sources it plucks and condenses choice nuggets of technological history, such as the eccentric story of Apple’s command key, aka pretzel key or splodge (⌘):

Known properly as the St John’s Arms, it’s an ancient, knot-like heraldic symbol, dating back in Scandinavia to at least 1000 BC, where it was used to ward off evil spirits and bad luck.

It’s still found today on Swedish maps, representing places of historical interest, thanks to its (approximate) resemblance to the tower of a castle viewed from above.

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A reactive defence of ‘proactive’

May 27, 2013

What is it about proactive that people hate so much? Some object to it on the grounds of superfluity, arguing (incorrectly) that it does nothing active isn’t already doing, um, actively. Others revile it as management speak, a corporate buzzword like leverage, synergy and incentivize (Boo, hiss! etc.).

COCA finds proactive commonly collocating with approach, role, stance, steps, management, and strategies, which points to its prevalence in business or academic writing. It’s been appearing in print since about 1930, but it didn’t take off until relatively recently. Its rise to popularity has been distributed evenly on either side of the Atlantic:

Google ngram viewer - proactive in UK and US English

Such swift sweeps into the general lexicon rarely go unpunished (ongoing, I’m looking at you). A few minutes of Googling delivered reams of proactive-hatred, of which the following is a small sample:

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Book review: Sick English, by Janet Byron Anderson

April 18, 2013

Specialist language sometimes spreads beyond its initial domain and becomes part of common currency. From baseball we get home run; from jousting, full tilt. And from medical science we get syndrome, viral, clinical, [X] on steroids, and others – not exactly an epidemic (that’s another one), but a significant set all the same.

For example: a detective novel I read lately (Angels Flight by Michael Connelly) contained the phrase: “the senseless and often random violence that was the city’s cancer”. Intuitively we understand the cancer metaphor, but we might never have thought about it analytically. You’ll be glad to know that someone has.

Janet Byron Anderson, a linguist and medical editor, has written a book about these words. Sick English: Medicalization in the English Language looks at how medical terminology has “migrated from hospital floors and doctors’ offices and taken up dual citizenship on the pages of newspapers, in news reports and quoted speech”.

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Usage Peeve Bingo

January 16, 2013

If you search Google Images for “buzzword bingo”, you’ll see how popular a game (or pretend game) it is. Some examples were probably inspired by Dilbert, veteran victim of business jargon:

Dilbert - buzzword bingo

By comparison, bingo cards of grammar/usage peeves are surprisingly rare. On Twitter recently I described a Guardian article as “peever’s bingo” because it contained so many timeworn usage peeves, like literally and whom.

Maybe I had this comment by LanguageHat at the back of my mind. In any case, author and ex-copyeditor Scott Huler replied that an actual bingo card of pedantic peeves would be a good idea. So here it is:

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The problem with banning words

April 26, 2012

I recently wrote about linguistic inflation for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, asking self-referentially if the phenomenon was “insanely awesome”. John Petrie, in a comment, told me about a “Campaign to Stamp Out Awesome”. The person responsible calls it a “nauseatingly ubiquitous (and by now, completely meaningless) superlative”. He sells stickers with this message.

Inflation is a form of semantic change. This is a very common process, yet critics tend to be strangely selective about the particular changes that bother them. It doesn’t seem to matter to awesome-haters that many people find the weakened sense of the word natural and useful, or that to call it “completely meaningless” is absurdly hyperbolic – something to which another pedant might well object. Now that would be a funny campaign. Read the rest of this entry »


Flouting class and flaunting mnemonics

December 5, 2011

It’s the start of a new month, which means it’s time to report on what I’ve been writing at Macmillan Dictionary Blog over the last few weeks. Five posts on words and language are linked and excerpted below, or you can go straight to my archive of articles.

Someone on Twitter reported seeing a sign that read: “Help impact a child, donate your vehicle”. This is a usage of impact that bothers a lot of people, and I can’t say I’m fond of it myself. But there’s nothing grammatically wrong with it.

So how does “impact” impact you? This post considers the word in the context of Michael Hoey’s lexical priming theory, which says that as we acquire vocabulary it becomes “loaded with the contexts (linguistic, generic and social) in which we repeatedly encounter it”. And it seems we can’t help wanting others to support our impressions:

We have a tendency to generalise from our feelings, leaping too easily from “I dislike this usage” to “This is wrong” or even “No one should ever say this anywhere.” It’s natural that we would want to universalise our preferences, but it’s not very reasonable or practical. Better to examine why we might object to a legitimate word. This can have a surprising impact. [more]

People sometimes adopt new modes of speech to advance in work or society or to dissociate from certain areas or attributes and so on. This may be part of what inspired the much-derided “Dortspeak” in and around Dublin.

I look briefly at the accent and at Received Pronunciation in RP and Dortspeak. RP, also known as BBC English and the Queen’s (or King’s) English, is not so exalted nowadays as it once was, but for a long time it had powerful social prestige:

An RP accent, even a modified one that combines it with regional qualities, has prestige because it implies a certain level of education, social status, prosperity and perhaps political power. Centuries ago it was the accent of the courts and high society in London and the home counties; people moving there to advance in life often adopted it as their own.

Later, RP became the accent of public schools and the BBC, which strengthened and stabilised its status as the “standard” form of English speech. It was (and remains) linked to class consciousness. [more]

Class consciousness was a recurring theme on Macmillan Dictionary Blog during November, which was its “class English” month and featured excellent posts by a range of regular and guest contributors.

My next article, Through the class ceiling, broadens the discussion in my previous post from accents to dialects:

Standard English is an important and useful variety of English, but its status comes from historical circumstance rather than inherent linguistic superiority. This point is sometimes missed by those who hold that there is an ideal form of English — which typically corresponds to the form they were taught or to which they aspire.

Later I quote from Jean Aitchison’s book Language Change: Progress or Decay?, in which she describes how Samuel Johnson’s great dictionary may have encouraged belief in a false hierarchy of linguistic properness:

Johnson, like many people of fairly humble origin, had an illogical reverence for his social betters. When he attempted to codify the English language in his famous dictionary he selected middle- and upper-class usage. . . . in many instances [he] pronounced against the spoken language of the lower classes [more]

Leaping forward a few centuries, High-speed tech jargon explores online lingo and its rapid turnover:

Jargon is part of a sublanguage, and is subject to forces of change just like our common vocabulary is. Technology evolves quickly and its jargon is churned out at a corresponding rate. Entire avenues of research and use are rendered obsolete by superior (or better commercialised) developments, so what were technological buzzwords one year might be unrecognisable just a few years later.

After considering (and linking to) a few recent articles on tech jargon, two of which find fault with its ubiquity or opacity, I conclude that

So long as jargon is reasonably transparent and pitched at the appropriate level, there is no cause for alarm; when communication fails because the words we use are too obscure or esoteric, people will either stop reading or let us know. [more]

Finally, Avoid flaunting your confusion is about commonly confused word pairs like flaunt vs. flout, and how we can use mnemonics and other methods to help remember which word is which.

To remember that flaunt means show off, for example, you could think of the aunt in flaunt and picture your aunt behaving ostentatiously. To make it doubly effective, address the other word in the pair, too: notice the lout in flout and think of a lout flouting the law . . . .

Mnemonics can help us only if we put them to work. First we need to be aware that there’s a difficulty, and to take responsibility for it. The tricks we devise can be personally meaningful or arbitrary and absurd, so long as they’re readily brought to mind. The more memorable they are, the more reliably they’ll do the job. [more]

Feel free to share your thoughts below or at the aforelinked posts.


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