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.


Do you take pains saying ‘painstaking’?

June 2, 2014

I don’t know when I first realised that painstaking – which means very careful, diligent and meticulous – is about taking pains. It’s obvious when you see it, but I didn’t make the connection when I first saw the word, and duly used and encountered it for a while before the etymology occurred to me or I read it somewhere.

Consider for a moment how you say the word, specifically the s in the middle. Do you voice it like a z, as in pains-taking, or is it an unvoiced, ‘soft’ s, as in pain-staking? Maybe you say it both ways? Or it could be borderline – it often seems so. I know the pronunciation of a sound can depend a lot on its neighbours, but I don’t have the phonetic savvy to establish precisely what’s going on here.

In any case it seems I’m not the only one to whom the word’s structure wasn’t initially glaringly obvious. When I asked on Twitter how people spoke it, most said they didn’t voice the s, and some were surprised (to put it mildly) to analyse it anew as taking pains. I’ve just put the full Twitter discussion up on Storify, if you’d like to take a look.

tibetan buddhist sand mandala

Tibetan Buddhist monks taking pains over a sand mandala.*

Curiously, there may be a UK/US difference here. British dictionaries tend to include the voiced-s pronunciation (or ‘z-form’) in their entries for painstaking, but some omit the unvoiced-s variant despite its popularity. Macmillan and Collins offer only the z-form, as does Oxford Dictionaries’ UK page – its US page has both.

Cambridge’s UK audio sample is clearly pains-taking, IPA /ˈpeɪnzˌteɪ.kɪŋ/, but its US audio is closer to pain-staking. Merriam-Webster has \ˈpān-ˌstā-kiŋ\ but its audio is (I think) ambiguous. The American Heritage Dictionary 4th ed. has the z-form only, but the 5th has both and notes that despite its etymology the word “often sounds as if it were made from pain and staking”.

So here’s a quick poll, to increase the sample size of this informal survey. Comments on how you say it and what your dialect is would also be welcome, as would phonetic analysis from anyone who has taken pains to learn those ropes.

* Photographer unknown. Please tell me if you can identify the source.


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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Amn’t I glad we use “amn’t” in Ireland

March 4, 2014

From ‘An Irish Childhood in England: 1951’ by Eavan Boland (full poem on my Tumblr):

let the world I knew become the space
between the words that I had by heart
and all the other speech that always was
becoming the language of the country that
I came to in nineteen fifty-one:
barely-gelled, a freckled six-year-old,
overdressed and sick on the plane,
when all of England to an Irish child

was nothing more than what you’d lost and how:
was the teacher in the London convent who,
when I produced “I amn’t” in the classroom
turned and said—“You’re not in Ireland now.”

I grew up in Ireland using expressions and grammatical constructions that I took to be normal English, only to discover years later that what counts as normal in language usage can be highly dependent on geography and dialect. I amn’t sure when I realised it, but amn’t is an example of this.

Standard English has an array of forms of the verb be for various persons and tenses with a negative particle (n’t) affixed: isn’twasn’t, aren’t, weren’t. But there’s a curious gap. In the tag question I’m next, ___ I?, the usual form is the unsystematic am I not or the irregular aren’t I (irregular because we don’t say *I are). Why not amn’t?

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A word 3½ hours long

February 11, 2014

If you’d asked me as a child how long it would take to speak the longest word in the English language, I’d have guessed a couple of seconds. Antidisestablishmentarianism would have come to mind, as the longest word in my pocket Collins dictionary at the time, or supercalifragilisticexpialidocious if “made-up” words were allowed.

Later I met other odd giants, like pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism and pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis with their unmistakeably medical morphemes. All these words (Mary Poppins aside) are known chiefly for being very long – but with a bit of practice you could voice any of them in a single breath.

They’re mere pipsqueaks compared with some chemical names, which are probably not words in a strict sense but are impressively massive all the same – especially the protein Titin, aka connectin, whose chemical name begins Methionylalanylthreonylseryl… and goes on like that for 189,819 letters. In this remarkable video, Dmitry Golubovskiy reads it in its entirety. It takes him just over 3½ hours:

You can read along here.

I didn’t watch the whole thing. After a couple of minutes I skipped ahead a bit, then watched the finale. His beard visibly darkens over the course of the performance, and he looks decidedly dazed at the end. The flowers wilt suddenly at 2:09:21 in a cut that suggests a bathroom break, or maybe a breather for sanity’s sake.

Hat-tip to @emordino for the video.


Curmudgeonly metonymy

December 21, 2013

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog I have a couple of new posts to share. First up, The grumbling heart of ‘curmudgeon’ looks at a much-loved and quite mysterious word:

It’s a fine word, curmudgeon, a pleasing way to say we are not pleased. It’s often associated with middle-aged or older men – Waldorf and Statler are classic examples – but this is not a prerequisite. For editorial and pedantic types of all ages, curmudgeonry can be a badge of pride – a righteous grumpiness marking the pursuit of perfection, or as close to it as possible in the circumstances.

The word is also something of a mystery. Despite its colourful past, we don’t know where it came from, and an array of early spellings – including curmudgin, cormogeon, cormoggian, and curre-megient – merely invites further speculation.

Curmudgeon also plays a memorable part in lexicographical lore, owing to certain consequences of Samuel Johnson’s dubious etymology.

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What is metonymy? Enquiring minds want to know offers a short account of the figure of speech known as metonymy, with lots of examples (some of them debatable):

In the familiar saying the pen is mightier than the sword, neither noun is meant literally – rather, they refer by metonymy to the acts of writing and warfare, respectively. . .

Centres of power are often metonymized. Journalists talk about Washington or the White House when they mean the president or presidency of the USA, they use Downing Street as shorthand for the office of the UK prime minister, the crown for the queen, king, or monarchy, and Brussels for institutions of the European Union. In common parlance the law often substitutes for the police, while Hollywood can mean that area’s film industry and Silicon Valley the tech industry.

The post continues along those lines, and the comments provide further examples and some constructive criticism.

Sometime Christmas week I’ll have a new post at Macmillan on words and phrases of the year, so take a look if you’re online then. Archived posts are here, if you want to browse older discussions.


Dictionary updates and etymological commutes

September 13, 2013

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about digital dictionaries and everyday etymologies.

The dictionary recently underwent a major update. News media tend to cover this by focusing on new words, either through force of habit, to drum up controversy, or because they think it’s the best way to interest people in a story about lexicography. So I wanted to look not at shiny new entries but at changes to existing ones.

Updating … A new version of your dictionary is now available takes technology as its theme:

Digital culture grows and mutates at a fierce pace, and a modern reference needs to reflect this in its definitions and example sentences.

Sometimes the alterations are subtle but significant. If you look up camera, for instance, sense 1 says it may be “part of a mobile device”. Several years ago this would not have been so, and several years before that it wouldn’t even have made sense. Macmillan Dictionary now also specifies analogue camera, one that “uses film rather than electronic signals”, where once that would have been implicit.

I also discuss updates to words like calendar, curate, tap, and gesture.

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The mutable route of ‘commute’ sketches the curiously winding history of this familiar Americanism,* and how divorced it has become – for some of us at least – from its origins as a verb meaning “exchange” or “interchange” (cf. mutation, transmute), and later “make less severe” (a sense still current in law):

The “exchange” sense of commute allowed it to be used in various ways relating to financial transaction, including the act of combining several payments into one. So when people began buying season tickets for trains and streetcars in 19th century US, they called them commutation tickets. From here it was a short stop to commuter – at first “one who holds a commutation ticket” – and to commute, referring to this mode of regular travel to and from work.

Only after developments in mass transportation systems, then, did the familiar sense of commute arise to fill a lexical niche.

You can read the rest here, or visit the archive for my older posts.

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* Though it’s perhaps less familiar as an Americanism.


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