“Going viral” in Murphy’s pub

April 16, 2014

You might have heard about the sheep–goat hybrid born in County Kildare in Ireland earlier this month. First reported in the Irish Farmer’s Journal, the animal – informally called a geep – is a rare and noteworthy creature. But what struck me was a linguistic item connected to the story.

Michael Madden on Twitter drew my attention to a phrase in the Irish Times report on the geep:

After the Farmers’ Journal posted a video of the creature on YouTube yesterday, it quickly went viral among customers in Murphy’s pub.

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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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Inspiring etymology, and ‘stakeholder’

May 1, 2013

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Inspiring etymology is a brief survey of breath-related words and phrases, anatomical and metaphorical, including the familiar constellation of terms arising from spirare:

Both inspiration and expiration originate in Latin spirare “breathe”, with the prefixes in- and ex- specifying the particular action. Both are related to spirit, from Latin spiritus “breath”: this too came from spirare, as did perspiration, respirator and conspiracy. . . .

In these related terms there is great variety along the literal–figurative continuum. Sometimes we see it even in the same word: aspiration can refer either to wishes or, more concretely, to audible breath. If you’re aiming for a certain linguistic register, you might aspire to aspirate your (h)aitches.

In the comments there’s an interesting discussion about related words in other languages and contexts.

*

‘Stakeholder’ stakes a claim looks at a word made recently popular:

Many of the words that commonly modify stakeholders – such as various, different, multiple, diverse, and a range of – convey the breadth of views that have to be taken into account with regard to some organisation or development. Other collocating adjectives, such as key, relevant and major, indicate a hierarchy of involvement . . . .

A Google Ngram graph of the word in singular and plural forms shows how recent is its growth in popularity: hardly ever used until the late 1970s, at which point it rose steadily for a decade and then climbed even more rapidly. The Corpus of Historical American English shows a similar curve: no tokens at all from 1800 to 1980, then a sudden surge.

Words that develop sudden widespread usage tend to attract critics, and stakeholder is no exception, as the post shows. But based on texts I’ve read or edited over the years, I think it’s a useful addition to the general vocabulary and is certain to consolidate its niche(s).

You can also read older articles in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.


“Fortune is bald behind”

April 28, 2013

The Chicago Tribune had a brief article in January on baby naming trends, specifically the practice of naming children after places. It mentions the importance of timing:

“Fashionable names risk a kairos problem,” says speech consultant Jay Heinrichs . . . . “Kairos is the rhetorical art of timing. The Romans called it Occasio and made it a god with a beautiful youthful body who was bald on the back of his head,” Heinrichs says. “The occasion, such as a moment of fashion, ages quickly – hence the wonderful expression, ‘Fortune is bald behind.’”

That’s twice lately I’ve seen the same striking phrase. For a fuller exposition of its meaning I defer to Dr Stephen Maturin, in colourful conversation with Captain Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brian’s historical novel The Mauritius Command:

‘Far be it from me to decry patient laborious staff-work,’ said the Governor. ‘We have seen its gratifying results on this island: but, gentlemen, time and tide wait for no man; and I must remind you that Fortune is bald behind.’

Walking away from the Residence through streets placarded with the Governor’s proclamation, Jack said to Stephen, ‘What is this that Farquhar tells us about Fortune? Is she supposed to have the mange?’

‘I conceive he was referring to the old tag – his meaning was, that she must be seized by the forelock, since once she is passed there is no clapping on to her hair, at all. In the figure she ships none abaft the ears, if you follow me.’

‘Oh, I see. Rather well put: though I doubt those heavy-sided lobsters will smoke the simile.’ He paused, considering, and said, ‘It doesn’t sound very eligible, bald behind; but, however, it is all figurative, all figurative . . .’

Does Jack say it “doesn’t sound very eligible” because bald behind could be interpreted as a reference to a bottom instead of the back of a head? Or is it on account of its obscurity?

In any case, it’s a memorable expression, and a search online shows a popular variation: “Seize opportunity by the beard, for it is bald behind.”


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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All the words went down the wires

February 8, 2013

I recently read Deirdre Madden’s novel Remembering Light and Stone (1992), which some of you may remember seeing in a bookmash here a couple of years ago.

Narrated by an troubled, introverted Irishwoman in Italy, the story weaves a strange and intimate spell, though some readers may find it quite gloomy. I hadn’t read Madden’s work before, but I’ll definitely read more of it. Take this short passage:

When I was a child, I couldn’t understand how telegraph poles worked. I thought all the words went down the wires, and if you cut a wire, language would drip out of it like water from a broken pipe.

I remember having similar thoughts myself as a child, struggling to grasp how telephony worked and assuming that with the right equipment you could listen to the jumbled flow of words as they sped along the wires from mouth to distant ear.


Irregular verbs, dialects, and sockpuppets

September 24, 2012

I have a few new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First up, Irregular ours considers irregular verbs, whose familiarity obscures their peculiarity – most pronounced in everyday words like be and go:

Irregular verbs can be awkward items for students, requiring to be learned (or learnt) by heart rather than by a simple rule. But they are also historical artefacts that have stubbornly withstood (not withstanded) the pressure to conform, and they shed light on the shapes and structure of English morphology – word formation – as it has unfolded over the centuries.

The post also looks at how new irregulars (snuck, knelt) sometimes appear; how old ones (holp, brung) survive in regional dialects; and how irregular forms, far from being chaotic, tend to follow patterns and sub-rules of their own.

Dialects in dialogue continues the theme, briefly discussing regional variation, how conformity squeezed it out of the emerging standard variety of English, and how authors continued to convey it through the technique of ‘eye dialect’:

Variation in language goes beyond inflection and vocabulary, of course. In everyday encounters it is most noticeable in our accents. As children we learn sounds from the people around us, typically our families, neighbours and peers, and we imbue our accent with qualities all our own. The signature sound of our voice is the result of a unique anatomy, personality, and social environment. . . .

Spelling became largely standardised as Middle English developed gradually into Early Modern English. But authors continued to exploit the features of regional speech, which retained – and still retains – old grammatical and phonetic variants. [read more]

Finally, On the metaphor of sock puppets addresses the term sock puppet in its new online incarnation. Describing it as “the use of a fake identity online for the purposes of talking about oneself, typically in a self-promoting way”, I examine the term’s connotations and appropriateness, especially in light of the etymology of puppet and the other metaphorical uses to which it is put:

The fun and friendly feel of sock puppets, perhaps helped by puppet‘s similarity to poppet and indeed puppy, seems awkwardly at odds with the sneaky behaviour it has come to mean. At first glance the term doesn’t fit well with the usual metaphors of deception, which evoke things that are dark, down, dirty and hidden – not playful and brightly coloured. But when we look at puppet’s other metaphorical uses, we see it’s not such a leap. [read more]

Older posts are available in my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Slightly sinister sock puppet image via Wikimedia Commons.


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