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.


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.

Don’t tell Richard Feynman

September 4, 2012

I’ve been reading Don’t You Have Time to Think?, a collection of letters written by (and to) the great physicist Richard Feynman.

As I tweeted earlier today, Feynman comes across as warm, generous, sincere and self-effacing. He was also blessed with wit, patience, and admirable directness.

Here’s a short, amusing exchange he had with Francis Crick in 1978:

Dear Francis,
I regret having to do this, but I’m returning this paper to you unread. My schedule is such lately that I must refuse to get bogged down reading someone else’s theory; it may turn out to be wonderful and there I’d be with something else to think about.
Richard P. Feynman

Crick replied:

Dear Dick,
I would have done the same! The usual expression used in Molecular Biological circles is due to Frank Stahl: “Don’t tell me – I might think about it!”
Yours ever,

Don’t tell me – I might think about it! I may adopt that.

On a linguistic note, the book includes correspondence with A. M. Hughes at the OED, who was seeking further information on the origins of parton, a word coined by Feynman to refer to what we now call quarks and gluons.

The provisional definition of parton to be included in the OED Supplement was: “Each of the hypothetical point-like constituents of the nucleon that were invoked by R. P. Feynman to explain the way the nucleon inelastically scatters electrons of very high energy.” Feynman found the definition “admirable”.

Over on Tumblr, I posted one other letter from the book, wherein Feynman gives his reasons for declining an honorary degree after winning the Nobel Prize in Physics.

If you’re interested in buying Don’t You Have Time to Think?, you can do so at Penguin Books so long as typos don’t bother you inordinately: the edition I have, pictured above, contains several. Steven Poole has a short, accurate review in the Guardian that might sway you.

Audio lingo

April 19, 2012

This blog normally focuses on text, sometimes on images and video. Audio is relatively under-represented, so what follows is a selection of podcasts and interviews I’ve listened to lately, in a language-and-linguistics vein.


Some of you already know about Lexicon Valley, a new podcast on language from Slate, hosted by Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo. There have been six episodes so far, 20–40 minutes long and covering such subjects as syntax, taboo words, pseudo-rules and Scrabble. The show is entertaining, well-researched, and sometimes surprising.

Critical reaction from linguists and others has been very positive. Arnold Zwicky, who features in one show, is impressed, while Neal Whitman finds it interesting and linguistically sound. Dave Wilton thought the first episode fun and first rate, despite one minor criticism; Joe McVeigh (“excellent”) and Crikey (“treasure”) also praised it.

Lexicon Valley is on a temporary break but will soon be back with new episodes. Listeners are invited to comment and suggest ideas for future coverage.


Since 2009, to mark National Grammar Day in the U.S., John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun has been writing humorous pulp serials which he calls Grammarnoir. This year they reappeared as podcasts: Grammarnoir 1 (2009) (text); Grammarnoir 2 – Pulp Diction (2010) (text); and Grammarnoir 3 – The Wages of Syntax (2011).

Grammarnoir 4 (2012) has yet to be broadcast, but the script is online in four parts: one, two, three, four. Each serial plays with the style and language of hard-boiled crime fiction, and is packed with drama, derring-do and editorial wit.


Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green, author of the three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, gave a lively and fascinating interview with New Books Network about slang in all its rambunctious glory. A voluble and thoughtful speaker, he discusses lexicographical research, historical attitudes to slang and taboo, the Urban Dictionary, and more.


In 2001, Judy Swallow on NPR’s The Connection hosted an interesting discussion about language between Bryan Garner and David Foster Wallace – both articulate and passionate commentators on language. They are rather more prescriptivist in their outlook than I am, but don’t let that put you off. One listener calls in to criticise different than, insisting it should be different from. Her reasoning was quite strange:

If you compare two things, one’s gonna be up and one’s gonna be down, and then you use than, but if something is simply different, it’s different from the way it used to be.

(It’s possible she said gotta rather than gonna; I couldn’t tell.) Garner defended the usage, saying that different from would have been “very awkward and difficult” in the instances in question. My post on different than, from, and to, which received a fresh flurry of comments recently, shows that different than is acceptable.


Finally, a shout-out to A Way with Words, a public radio favourite hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, which I’ve been enjoying for years and recommend highly to anyone unaware of it. Etymology, wordplay and dialectal variation are recurring themes.

If you know any podcasts or other audio material that you think I might enjoy, language-related or otherwise, feel free to suggest them.

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.


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

Ozwords, Lexico Loco, and A World of Englishes

March 21, 2012

Today I’d like to introduce you, in no particular order, to three new language blogs.


Ozwords is a blog from the Australian National Dictionary Centre; the focus, accordingly, is on Australian words and lexicography. Entries are short and entertaining and cover usage and history, often concluding with a draft dictionary entry and inviting readers to contribute. As they put it: “a definition is only as good as the available evidence”.

The first post, published two weeks ago, was about women dictionary-makers, and since then there have been entries on: ranga (from orang-utan), an offensive word for a red-haired person; stormstick, meaning umbrella (I might adopt this one); budgie smugglers, a colloquial term for men’s swimming briefs; and Johnniedom, a rare word used to refer to fashionable young men or their social world.


Lexico Loco is a new blog written by Diane Nicholls, a freelance lexicographer, editor, and natural language processing enthusiast. She has written many articles for MED Magazine (MED = Macmillan English Dictionaries), which is where I initially encountered her writing.

Diane’s first post, “You lost me at knickers!”, takes its title from the line “a corner shop that sold everything from paraffin to knickers”, which may well make you wonder what exactly the shop sold. This is known as a false range — another example is “everything from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Sue Townsend” — and Lexico Loco offers a funny and thoughtful assessment of this popular but incongruous formula.


A World of Englishes comes from Jane Setter, a senior lecturer in phonetics at the University of Reading, UK, and co-editor of the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary.

A World of Englishes, as its names suggests, is about the varieties of English around the world, for example Hong Kong English, Singapore English and Jamaican English. Its author investigates such topics as teaching, research, attitudes and intelligibility; she describes it as

a fascinating area, not just because of the richness of different varieties around the world — including the UK — but also because of the socio-political and economic issues involved.


All three blogs are likely to be of interest to anyone who enjoys reading about words, language, and linguistics.


The redoubtable John E. McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun has followed up with his own thoughts on false ranges. He has written about them more than once before, and says this is our last chance to swear off “wrapping some meaningless gimcrackery in alliteration and pop references”.

harm•less drudg•ery: a new language blog

December 19, 2011

Lovers of words and languages will share my delight at the arrival of harm•less drudg•ery, a new language blog from Kory Stamper.

Kory is a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster; you might remember her from such videos as Slang, Octopus, and Christmas vs. Xmas (or from comments she has left on Sentence first). Her working day consists of “reading citations and trying to define words like ‘Monophysite’ and ‘bodice ripper.’”

In her introductory post, Kory writes with wit and insight about how she fell into the world of dictionaries, what lexicography is and is not, and how deep is her love of words (the phrase coke fiend appears in this context). But a love of words is not enough:

a love of words—even the unloved, unlovely bastard ones—does not guarantee that one will excel at, or even enjoy, lexicography. The two primary requirements for my job are a good grasp on the rules, requirements, and idioms of your target language, and a willingness to throw two-thirds of that out the window in the face of cold, hard facts about usage.

Go read, bookmark, subscribe.

Genderally speaking

August 31, 2011

August 2011 was “gender English” month at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, and a few of my recent posts there focus on this aspect of the language.

In “Problems with pronouns”, I address the issue of gender-neutral third person singular personal pronouns (I’m a singular-they man, myself), and wonder about the effectiveness of an experiment in Egalia, a pre-school in Sweden which forsakes gendered pronouns altogether:

Plural pronouns (they, them, their, themselves) have been used for centuries to refer to singular antecedents, not only in informal speech but in classic literature. This raises the hackles of sticklers, though, who protest that it contravenes grammatical concord. The influence of Google+ should give singular they a boost, but Facebook ran into difficulty here. Themself – which centuries ago was used where we now use themselves – is occasionally resorted to, but it is a non-standard form. [more]

My next post, “Getting cute about gender”, looks at the etymology and historical and contemporary senses of cute, a word whose usage is strongly skewed by gender. It also has a usage peculiar to Ireland:

Irish English has a version of this lesser sense of cute that is typically heard in the colloquialism “cute hoor”. Hoor in this case derives from whore but doesn’t have anything necessarily to do with sex; rather, it’s a general term of abuse applied usually to males, often corrupt ones. A cute hoor is someone cunning and devious. It’s commonly heard in political contexts, and has given rise to the noun phrase “cute hoorism”:

This is the kind of political cute hoorism that has the economy where it is today. (Irish Times, 30 June 2011)

Like many Irish insults, hoor is sometimes used with affection, even respect. It can also indicate strong or unhealthy fondness (“He’s an awful hoor for the horses/drink”). [more]

In “Finding the riot words”, I write about some of the linguistic aspects of the recent riots in England, for example the debate over what to call the people who were rioting:

The BBC was criticised for continuing to use the word protesters for a few days after the term had become inappropriate. The broadcaster later admitted it had made a mistake; Fran Unsworth, BBC News head of newsgathering, added:

We try not to be too prescriptive, but yes we have said actually that they’re not protesters they’re clearly rioters and looters. They are more descriptive terms and we should try and be as accurately descriptive as we can be.

Though the BBC went out of its way to avoid terms that could be considered judgemental, other media outlets and commentators were less cautious. All sorts of words were used to refer to the rioters – looters, thieves, criminals, hooligans, thugs, yobs, idiots, cretins, scum, terrorists, feral underclass. A few of these are, to use Unsworth’s phrase, accurately descriptive; others are loaded with prejudice or carry a nasty subtext. [more]

Back to gender: “Fighting fire with ‘firefighter’” is about how some words become outdated for political reasons, and what dictionaries do as meanings “shift and drift and settle anew”:

Dictionaries record how language is used, so they can’t simply ignore sexist and discriminatory usages – or new terms that supersede them – no matter how objectionable some people might find them. But by tagging words and adding usage notes, dictionaries can point out controversies, indicate that a word is non-standard or politically incorrect, and trust to readers’ judgement. . . .

One of the arguments against gender-biased terms like fireman and chairman is that they suggest that these roles – and the power and bravery and other virtues associated with them – are the exclusive or particular preserve of men. Sexist terminology often takes the male as norm, the female as derivation or deviation, and men have long considered themselves the quintessential type: Joe Public as “modern man”, putting in man-hours with his manpower.

This led to a good discussion in the comments about (among other things) gender-neutral words for postman. There’s more terminology here – and difficulty – than I first supposed!

My latest post is “Use ‘bloody’? Not Pygmalion likely!” This picks up on a piece the Virtual Linguist wrote about the controversial language in Shaw’s famous play:

Eliza’s line (“Walk! Not bloody likely.”) caused a scandal, and the word Pygmalion was used for decades afterwards as a jocular substitute expletive, as in the title of this post.

Bloody retains a peculiar power to bother people. Just a few years ago, its use in a tourism campaign in Australia caused a considerable fuss. Michael Quinion reports on his World Wide Words website that the Australian prime minister couldn’t bring himself to speak the offending line (“So where the bloody hell are you?”) on radio, but that the tourism minister had a markedly different attitude: “It’s the great Australian adjective. We all use it, it’s part of our language.” [more]

That’s it for this month. As always, comments in either location are very welcome. You can find the full archive of my Macmillan Dictionary Blog posts here, or by clicking the relevant link in the top right corner of this blog.


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