“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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Irish doublethink and unknown knowns

February 28, 2014

A couple of excerpts from Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger (2009), a fine polemic by the Irish critic and author Fintan O’Toole:

One of the great strengths of Irish culture [is] its capacity for double-think. For a range of reasons – the simultaneous existence of paganism and Christianity, the ambiguous relationship of indigenous society to a colonial power, the long experience of emigration – Irish culture developed a particularly strong capacity for operating simultaneously within different mental frameworks. This is one of the reasons for the rich inventiveness of Irish artistic life and for much of the humour, teasing and wordplay that enliven social interaction. Irish double-think is wonderfully summed up by the old woman in the 1930s who, asked by Sean O’Faolain if she believed in the little people, replied, ‘I do not, sir, but they’re there.’

Much of this is of course unprovable (and unfalsifiable), and you could probably make a case for the same capacity for doublethink in other countries. But O’Toole’s ideas are, as always, food for thought.

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On privilege-checking and amazey amazeballs

January 16, 2014

I have two new posts to report at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First: Check your privilege and know thy selfie offers some thoughts on the words and phrases of 2013. It includes my own pick, because X, which anticipated the American Dialect Society’s selection.

The focus, though, is on privilege-checking, a phrase that didn’t feature in other WOTY discussions, and remains niche, but whose emergence I’ve found especially interesting:

[C]heck your privilege, described as “one of the great political rallying cries of 2013”, is increasingly used in debates about social justice and power, typically directed at people who are saying something from a position of unconscious privilege.

For example, a middle-class white male might remark on how little abuse there is in social media, not having realised or enquired about its extent for people in less socially powerful positions: he has failed to check his privilege. As the Geek Feminism Wiki puts it, a privileged person “is not necessarily prejudiced (sexist, racist, etc) as an individual, but may be part of a broader pattern of *-ism even though unaware of it”.

Read the rest for further notes on privilege-checking and more familiar WOTY candidates like selfie and -splaining.

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Is ‘amazeballs’ still amaze? considers a word perhaps more loathed than loved but which shows no immediate signs of going away – indeed, the BBC called it one of 2013’s most overused words.

The BBC article quotes lexicographer Ian Brookes as saying, ‘You know a word has arrived in language when people use it without needing to explain it’ – but in this case I think most people knew what amazeballs meant the first time they heard it. It’s pretty self-explanatory, as are other amaze- coinages like amazetastic, amazetabulous, and amazeroonie (in decreasing order of Google hit count).

The short adjectival form amaze – which gave rise to the neologisms above – also remains common, and is a good example of conversion or zero derivation, where a word’s grammatical category is changed without altering the spelling. Amazeballs and company all testify to our love of language play, and specifically the fun of new words.

Odder even than the word’s productiveness in the linguistic domain is the (true) story of Kellogg’s and Tim Burgess, which I summarise in the post. For older articles you can browse the archives.


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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This blog post is cat melodeon

December 3, 2013

A distinctive feature of the English spoken in Ireland is the colloquial use of cat as an adjective to mean: awful, unpleasant, rough, terrible, bad, calamitous, or very disappointing. I heard it a lot as a child, and I still do occasionally in the city – someone wants to criticise a situation, such as a bad sporting performance or a job done ineptly, and they say “It’s cat” and that sums it up.

Adjectival cat shows up in writing as well; I came across it recently in Angela Bourke’s short story ‘Charm’, in her collection By Salt Water. The narrator, an eleven-year-old girl, is staying at her aunt’s and hanging out with Brian Molloy, a neighbour around her own age, and Bernie, his older cousin:

Bernie was at Molloys as well. She was their cousin and she had a job in the hospital for the summer. She was from another place up in the mountains, called Derrylynch, that Brian said was the arse-end of nowhere. He was always teasing her, saying things like that. Any time Bernie didn’t like something she said it was cat, and Brian used to go around after her asking her if the dog was cat. He said cat himself though, and if he was talking about something really bad, like his school, he said it was cat melodeon.

Bernie is later reported as saying, “it’s cat when they’re dying all over the place” (i.e., rats); and “it was cat, the things some of them expected” (i.e., men). Often it appears as cat altogether or cat melodeon (or melodium), these longer phrases emphasising the cat-ness of the situation. (Cf. the expression melodeonised  “left in an awful state”, suggesting the image of being crumpled like an accordion.)

Browsing the popular Irish web forum Boards.ie for examples, I found the following things described as “cat”: a head cold; processed food; Rocky V; poems; dark ales; bad weather; golfing ability; heavy traffic; rugby jersey design; video gameplay; an athletics result; a music performance; band members not coming to a gig; and the state of Main Street in Lanesboro. You get the idea.

The origin of this peculiar usage is uncertain: is it an abbreviation of catastrophe/catastrophic, or a derivation from Irish cat mara or cat marbh – literally “sea cat” and “dead cat”, respectively, but meaning “mischief” or “calamity”?

Bernard Share’s Slanguage quotes Victoria White in the Irish Times calling cat melodeon “the greatest expression in Hiberno-English”; her review of a book on Irish traditional music by Ciaran Carson reports his hypothesis that it comes from the aforementioned Irish phrases, and relates:

the tendency of the piano-accordion players (who often refer to their instruments as melodeons) to play two notes at once.

Two discordant notes, presumably, maybe evoking the yowling of a tom-cat on a hormonal night. But I don’t know if there’s anything to this origin story beyond speculation.


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]

Sombunall coinages become cult words

October 3, 2013

Since I have neologisms on the brain, I got to thinking of one coined by Robert Anton Wilson (in his book The New Inquisition, as far as I know): sombunall, meaning “some but not all”. Wilson intended it as “semantic hygiene”, a neo-Whorfian corrective to dangerous generalisation, or a sort of epistemological buffer.

The word hasn’t caught on widely. Google hits aren’t much of a metric, but sombunall’s count of <7.5k (when last I looked) shows its relative obscurity; on the OneLook dictionary aggregator only Urban Dictionary features it (nothing in the unabridged OED or Merriam-Webster). Maybe because some but not all isn’t so unwieldy in the first place, and plain old some does solid work albeit without explicitly emphasising the not-all bit.

Sombunall words are created equalI included sombunall in an early language-links post, but never adopted it habitually myself. Because of its limited use, the word remains strongly associated with Wilson, as do its relative mosbunall (“most but not all”) and the Discordian in-joke fnord, among others. This RAW fan site, for instance, is subtitled “Sombunall things Robert Anton Wilson”.

Reading Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, I came across one occasion when it would have been very convenient to have sombunall available in general circulation. From the short essay on Simone Weil:

Yet so far as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it. In the respect we pay to such lives, we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world — and mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies. In this sense, all truth is superficial; and some (but not all) distortions of the truth, some (but not all) insanity, some (but not all) unhealthiness, some (but not all) denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing.

With his commitment to systematic uncertainty, or perhaps more accurately anti-certainty, Robert Anton Wilson would, I think, have enjoyed those lines. I have sombunall faith in this assumption, of course.


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