An European vs. A European

March 24, 2014

E. P. Thompson’s magisterial History of the English Working Class (1963) contains a short, innocuous phrase that nonetheless pulled me up short: “The population ‘explosion’ can be seen as an European phenomenon”. Then later, the same formulation: “the materials for an European and a British frame of reference”.

I don’t remember ever hearing a native English speaker – which Thompson is – say an European, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much. It may be a generational thing, among other factors.

The OED includes several standard pronunciations, all starting with [j] – the “y” sound of you, aka the voiced palatal approximant – which would ordinarily be preceded by “a”, not “an”. But English inherited the word from French Européen (from Latin, from Greek), which begins with a vowel sound, not a [j].

This may explain the gradual switch in both UK and US English, if not the timing (click to enlarge):

google ngram viewer - a european vs an european us and uk english

Or maybe someone better informed on these matters will edify us in the comments.

The inexorable decline of an European is confirmed by a search in COHA, whose most recent example is decades old (“convening of an European constitutional convention”, Christian Science Monitor, 1952). A comparison with GloWbE, however, shows it’s not unheard of in unedited (or unprofessionally edited) writing around the world:

an european in coha vs. glowbe corpus comparison

A search on Twitter shows likewise, though a brief examination of the results suggests it’s mainly non-native English speakers who use it.

Have you seen or heard, or do you say, an European? What do you make of such an usage?


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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Willy-nilly apostrophes and apocope

February 24, 2014

My fortnightly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues with three new posts. First: Apocope is not to be dissed resumes an unofficial series on different types of word formation. Apocope involves the loss of sounds from the ends of words:

The verb help was helpan in Old English and helpen in Middle English, and though its related past participle holpen survives in some US dialects, the word has otherwise definitively lost that final sound. . . .

Apocope is a term in diachronic (or historical) linguistics, as in the examples above. But it also applies on a shorter timescale to changes that are a sort of elision. Thus cinematograph gives us cinema; popular, pop; traditional, trad; veteran and veterinary surgeon, vet; microphone, mike; detoxification, detox; disrespect, dis or diss, and so on.

I look at a couple of examples of apocope in more detail, and show how words undergoing this change are apt to be colloquial at first.

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Willy-nilly word development sketches the history of the reduplicative phrase willy-nilly, which has two common senses: 1. whether willingly or not; 2. carelessly, randomly, haphazardly.

Nill is the old negative of will in the sense ‘to want’ or ‘to be willing’. This pair of opposites often collocated, as in the line from a Celtic fairy tale ‘will she nill she marry him’.

Willy-nilly came about through paired phrases of the form nill he, will he; nill I, will I; and nill ye, will ye. As Paula Kadose Radetzky writes in her scholarly history of willy-nilly (PDF), ‘all of the finite clause types of the form will [x], nill [x] collapsed into the expression willy-nilly, and it took on the form of an adverb.’ Her paper shows how this led to some ambiguity on account of the pronouns disappearing.

Read the rest for more on the divergent meanings of willy-nilly, and how reduplication might have affected its semantic shift.

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Finally, Apostrophe do’s, dos and don’ts reflects on a recent kerfuffle over apostrophes being officially removed from street signs in Cambridge before being unofficially, then officially, reinstated.

Noting the different and changing styles of different authorities (do’s and dos, 1950’s and 1950s), and the extreme rhetoric and dire warnings from certain quarters, I advise equanimity and flexibility in our attitudes to this contentious mark:

This kind of variation is a normal part of the great sprawl of English usage. As a proofreader and editor I apply contemporary standards of correctness – and, where these vary, consistency and adherence to a regional or house style. As a reader I wince at its–it’s confusion – especially in formal contexts, where, as Michael notes, it can diminish authority.

But I don’t get worked up over apostrophes dropped from street signs or added to grocers’ signs. I wouldn’t lose sleep if they were abandoned altogether, though that would be easier said than done, and some apostrophes are useful for avoiding ambiguity.

Are you an apostrophe activist or a disinterested observer? Maybe you’ll even be moved to rhyme about it, as some have done in the comments.

Your thoughts in any form, on this or the other posts, are welcome. Older articles on word lore and language usage are available in the archive.


Yan tan tethera pethera pimp — an old system for counting sheep

November 27, 2013

If any lightfoot Clod Dewvale was to hold me up, dicksturping me and marauding me of my rights to my onus, yan, tyan, tethera, methera, pimp, I’d let him have my best pair of galloper’s heels in the creamsourer.
—James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Though I grew up in the countryside, I’m not of direct farming stock, which may be why I learned of yan tan tethera only quite recently (courtesy of @vencut2 on Twitter). It’s an old counting system used traditionally by shepherds in parts of the UK, and also in knitting and fishing and so on, or by children for their own amusement.

stan carey - herd of sheep in Ireland, spring 2009 - yan tan tethera

Metheradik (=14) sheep in the west of Ireland (photo by Stan Carey)

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Link love: language (58)

October 20, 2013

A quick roundup of links on language, words, and linguistics in the news and around the web over the last few weeks (plus one or two from the archives):

The linguistics of ventriloquism.

Exclamation marks in graphic design.

Linguistic maps of the world, 1741.

A monumental curse.

The importance of paragraphs.

Is this what Proto-Indo-European sounded like?

Cute little Cholera Plague: the worst baby names in history.

Ironic dictionary of literary terms.

Rickrolling in Klingon.

Jigsaw family.

A tip-top primer on reduplication.

Joseph Stalin’s passion for editing.

A lingua-licious tour of libfixes.

On anchor(man) vs. news reader.

Do marmosets take turns to communicate?

[Update: more on marmoset conversation from Margaret Wilson.]

Is it wrong to put two spaces after a full stop? (My thoughts on this.)

Dog fooding, yak shaving: hacker terms for Ada Lovelace Day.

How old is TGIF?

The rise of the text tattoo.

On criticising “poor grammar”.

A hithertofore unrecognised neologism.

Words through which the root curr- courses.

How early modern English grammar differs from today’s.

Why dictionaries define words everyone supposedly knows.

Holy Sh*t and the history of swearing (book review).

The Seeing Speech phonetics project.

Are poisonous and venomous mutually distinct?

BuzzFeed and Duolingo are crowdsourcing translation.

The Chicago Manual of Style chats with Ben Zimmer.

Accent discrimination in the UK.

Linguistic ruin? LOL! A study of teens’ instant messaging language (PDF).

The poetics of babytalk (PDF).

Are Elvish, Klingon, Na’vi and Dothraki real languages?

[language links archive]

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]

Book review: ‘Shady Characters’ by Keith Houston

October 1, 2013

Shady Characters - secret life of punctuation - Keith Houston - US book coverOne of the better looking books to land on my desk lately is Keith Houston’s Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks. Its contents, I’m happy to report, live up to the promise of its stylish cover.

Shady Characters builds on the author’s blog of the same name, taking readers on a hugely entertaining journey down the backroads of typographical history. As well as the familiar family of dashes, commas and other stops, it puts us on intimate terms with the lesser-seen pilcrow (¶), at-symbol (@), octothorpe (#), interrobang (‽), and irony marks, among others.

It also documents in satisfying detail my new favourite mark, the manicule (☞), or pointing hand:

If a reader’s interest stretched to a few lines or a paragraph, a manicule’s fingers could be elongated to bracket the required text; in some extreme cases, inky, snake-like fingers crawl and intertwine across entire pages to indicate and subdivide relevant text in a horror-film parody of the hand’s physical form. Very occasionally, manicules were not hands at all; in one fourteenth-century Cicero [...] a five-limbed octopus curls about a paragraph, and in a seventeenth-century treatise on the medicinal properties of plants, tiny penises point out discussions of the male genitalia.

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