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.

*

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: ‘Phubbing All Over The World’ by Hugh Westbrook

January 13, 2014

Phubbing All Over The World: The Words of 2013 is a book by Hugh Westbrook about the neologisms and usages that made headlines in the last 12 months. Over 100-odd short pages, Westbrook repurposes posts from his blog Wordability to tell a story of 2013 in word news – with particular focus on the influence of technology, as in the phubbing of its title (from phone + snubbing).

Westbrook is a journalist who tracks and analyses innovative vocabulary. He is generally well-disposed towards new words, recognising them as signs of a language in good health. His approval isn’t universal, though: he disapproves of Thanksgivukkah and charity-inspired blends like Dryathlon and Stoptober. (I don’t see any harm in them, incidentally – nor the “idiocy” he sees in the Movember event.)

Read the rest of this entry »


‘Because’ is the 2013 Word of the Year, because woo! Such win

January 4, 2014

Here’s a fun bit of news. In Minneapolis last night the American Dialect Society (ADS) declared because its Word of the Year 2013. Going up against topical heavyweights like selfie, Bitcoin, Obamacare, and twerk, the humble conjunction-turned-maybe-preposition proved a surprising and emphatic winner with 127 votes.

Well, surprising to some – in a post I wrote for Macmillan Dictionary Blog before Christmas, I named because X my word/phrase of the year. I didn’t dwell on it because I’ve already written about it at length, in ‘Because’ has become a preposition, because grammar, where I described it as a “succinct and expressive” innovation.

That post on because X (the title of which I regret) ended up getting quite a lot of attention, thanks in part to Megan Garber’s follow-up for the Atlantic, which spread to various other news and aggregator sites. It also stoked considerable debate because even linguists disagree about because‘s grammatical identity in the construction.

It’s sometimes called because NOUN, but I avoid this because it also licenses verbs, adjectives, and interjections; see my earlier post for examples. As Ben Zimmer put it, 2013 saw because “[explode] with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use”, while his Word Routes report says it’s “fitting that a bunch of language scholars would celebrate such a linguistically innovative form”.

stan carey - doge meme - wow, such win, because grammar, so amaze, much usage, very language

The American Dialect Society’s WOTY event is the biggie for language nerds, not least because it has a range of interesting categories. A couple of days ago I emailed the ADS with my nominations, which I then posted on Twitter:

A new category this year was Most Productive, which was dominated by affixes and libfixes like –splaining and –shaming. I was glad least untruthful won Most Euphemistic, and disappointed that catfish trumped doge for Most Creative. See the ADS press release for all the nominations and vote counts, and Ben Zimmer’s post for commentary.

Because also won Most Useful, closely beating slash in the latter’s new guise as a coordinating conjunction. I wrote briefly and approvingly about this use of slash last year, and I’d like to have seen the honours shared. But impossible, because temporal asymmetry, so whatever. If this slash keeps spreading, though, its day slash night will come.

I’ll be returning to the subject of ungrammatical wordplay memes – why they appeal, what motivates them, and so on – in a later post. Because such fascinate, and very language.

Update 1: 

I’ve been waiting for someone to analyse the grammar of because X, because there’s a lot of uncertainty over whether it’s acting as a preposition, and I’m not qualified to adjudicate. Also, in my earlier post on because X I noted that it wasn’t just because behaving this way: so, also, but, thus et al. were doing so too.

Now, at All Things Linguistic, Gretchen McCulloch has posted a very helpful deconstruction of the construction [and see the comments on her post for discussion]: Why the new “because” isn’t a preposition (but is actually cooler):

It’s not that because is newly a preposition: depending on your definition, it’s either still not a preposition or it always has been. Instead, it’s that subordinating conjunctions as a class are appearing in a new type of construction, that is, with interjectional complements in addition to the prepositional phrases and clauses that we’ve seen for a long time. Harder to explain maybe, but the data’s very robust and the results are pretty cool.

Interjectional complements doesn’t make for snappy headlines like new preposition does, but that’s immaterial. I find Gretchen’s analysis persuasive, and the discussions she’s had with other linguists (some are linked from her post) suggest a degree of consensus. Competing hypotheses might emerge, but I’m gravitating around this one for now.

Update 2:

At Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum takes polite but firm issue with McCulloch’s interpretation, in a post on the promiscuity of prepositions:

[T]he mistake of trusting a standard dictionary definition of “preposition” has misled All Things Linguistic (and even Stan Carey to some extent), just like it misleads everyone else.

Also on this topic, Neal Whitman has a good post at Visual Thesaurus in which he explains why because was awarded WOTY, and how different grammatical schools of thought mean there are different ways of interpreting because X:

So yes, because is a preposition, but not on account of this new usage. But there’s still the question of exactly what kind of complement this particular prepositional flavor of because takes. . . . The freshest examples of because X don’t fit McCulloch’s rule that X can stand alone, and they’re not used ironically.

At the Dictionary.com blog, Jane Solomon summarises reaction to the new construction, ponders its origin and grammar, and wonders what we should call it:

There is currently not any sort of consensus among linguists over the part of speech of this new because, though this might change as the discussion continues. I personally feel that because x is the safest moniker for the time being. As far as the part of speech goes, the grammar classification might further shift as English speakers play with and develop the new uses of because x.

Tyler Schnoebelen at the Idibon blog has done some serious number-crunching on this, analysing twenty-something thousand tweets for patterns of because X (the top X? Yolo). For stats, laughs, and useful academic links, read his post ‘Innovating because innovation.’

More discussion and links at Language Log’s ‘ADS WOTY: “Because”‘; and Language Hat’s ‘Because (Prep).’

Photo of Kabosu by Atsuko Sato, modified because doge.

Zombie nouns, words of the year, and serendipity

February 4, 2013

Time to report on my postings at Macmillan Dictionary Blog since the year turned. I have three new posts up. The first, Nominalisation and zombification, looks at a grammatical process often cited as a hindrance to good prose:

Nominalisation, with or without adding an affix, is very common in English, and is a prolific source of new vocabulary. Yet it has a bad reputation in writing circles. As well as the traditional grumbling about words being used in novel ways or created unnecessarily, there is also a popular belief that nominalisation leads to weak and wordy prose. In the New York Times last year, Helen Sword warned writers about what she calls zombie nouns that “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings”.

Does Sword have a point? I look at the arguments and try to separate the sense from the scapegoating.

Next up is Mansplaining the new-word-pocalypse, in which I review the American Dialect Society’s recent Word of the Year poll, assess trends and likely keepers and offer some subjective thoughts on the winners and also-rans in the various categories:

Most readers will recognise some nominated terms and be less familiar with others. Gate lice (“airline passengers who crowd around a gate waiting to board”), voted Most Creative, was new to me but made immediate visual sense. Still, I’d have liked to see mansplaining win (“a man’s condescending explanation to a female audience”). It’s not especially creative – just another man-word, really – but it is very useful and has inspired several variations, such as whitesplaining, geeksplaining, and others based specifically on people’s names.

The comments include some fun discussion of various man- and -splaining words.

My latest article, just up today, is In praise of serendipity – the much-loved word and the equally treasured experience. It includes a note on etymology:

We have Horace Walpole to thank for this popular but peculiar word. In a letter he wrote in 1754, Walpole describes looking through an old book at random and finding some fact of significance to his studies – a discovery, he says, “almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.”

Walpole based the word on Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka, as in the fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip. The eponymous princes, while travelling, “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of”. Serendip comes from Arabic Sarandīb, ultimately from Sanskrit Siṃhaladvīpaḥ, meaning island (dvīpaḥ) of the Sri Lankan people.

I also wonder whether serendipity is threatened by the pattern of bookstores and dictionaries going increasingly online-only.

Your comments here or at Macmillan Dictionary are very welcome. For older articles, visit the archive.


Link love: language (50)

January 22, 2013

I suddenly notice I’ve done 50 of these. To mark the occasion, here’s a bumper set of 25 luscious language-related links. Happy browsing.

Firn, crud, sastruga: a flurry of words for snow.

Keep on the grass: a library lawn.

Punning: more than a mere linguistic fillip.

Fisher Price synaesthesia.

Why borking caught on as an eponym.

A report on the American Dialect Society’s words of the year.

(And on that subject, see Keanu Reeves.)

Words of the year in other languages.

The problems with Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.

The language of lullabies.

In praise of books.

Suppletion, or, How come the past of go is went?

What’s a Z really worth? Re-evaluating Scrabble scores.

Shooting dead people in ambiguous headlines.

Adjective, participle, or gerund?

Problems with parallelism.

Poo or poop?

Silenc: visualising text without its silent letters.

Language diversity and death in New York.

Copy editors killed in style war violence.

The rebirth of Australia’s indigenous Kaurna language.

Typographic myth-busting: What’s a ligature, anyway?

On linguistic chauvinism and integration.

Teach yourself morphology.

The evolution of British Sign Language (a short, personal documentary).

[previous language linkfests]

Fiscal metaphors and everyday idioms

January 1, 2013

Happy new year, all. I hope you enjoyed the break, or at any rate survived it in one piece.

I have three new posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog to round off 2012. First up, An everyday usage anymore looks at the different ways anymore (and any more) is used:

Macmillan’s page on anymore notes that it is usually used in negatives (We don’t use the car anymore) or questions (Do you knit anymore?). It also appears in conditional contexts (If you fight anymore, I’ll stop the game). And sometimes the negative is not explicit but implied: It’s too busy to visit anymore. So for most people the word is what linguists call a negative polarity item.

But there is a variant construction, generally called positive anymore, that means “nowadays” or “from now on”: I cycle to work anymore. Macmillan Dictionary will be digital-only anymore. This usage dates to the 1850s at least, and seems to be spreading. [read more]

*

It’s the time of year for words of the year, and still making headlines beyond this niche – even in Ireland now – is fiscal cliff. So in The steep rise of ‘fiscal cliff’ I assess the term’s effectiveness as a metaphor. Some critics have said it’s unsuitable,

mainly because the economy would more likely drop gradually than with the irreversible abruptness of falling off a cliff edge. The word invites images like the Washington Post’s “going over the cliff” and “fall over the fiscal cliff” – dramatic events compared to what would happen on a fiscal curve or fiscal hill, which have been proposed as alternatives.

But fiscal cliff is unlikely to be displaced. It comprises several constituent metaphors that our minds integrate into a powerful combination. In his anatomy of fiscal cliff at the Huffington Post, George Lakoff mentions conceptual metaphors such as TheFutureIsAhead, which is how we commonly conceptualise time; along with MoreIsUp, SuccessIsUp, ActivityIsMotion and others, all bundled in the fiscal cliff complex. [read more]

*

Finally, Try to get over ‘try and’ looks at the synonymity and subtle differences between try to and try and. Although both phrases are standard, try and is sometimes rejected as illogical or just plain wrong, which I think is unfounded:

A recurring objection, as Cathy Relf discovered, is that try and [verb] implies two successive actions, trying and [verb]ing, and that the phrase is therefore ambiguous or misleading. When I asked on Twitter, I received several responses along these lines (as well as insights into how people use them differently).

But this is an overly literal interpretation of an idiom. I’ve never seen anyone raise the same objection to constructions like Go and (find out), Come and (visit), or Be sure and (say hello). The parallels between these and try and are not precise, but the key word is idiom. Trying to impose strict, literal logic on them is misguided. [read more]

The honourable peacay sent me a great survey (PDF) of the semantic and pragmatic differences between try to and try and, but the link seems to be down at the moment. Back at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, don’t miss Michael Rundell’s summary of the highlights of the year, or Kati Sule’s collection of the blog’s 10 most popular posts of 2012.


How do you pronounce GIF? Does it matter?

December 12, 2012

When Oxford Dictionaries named the acronym GIF (graphics interchange format) as their US word of the year (in its verb use), debates resurfaced over its correct pronunciation. The short answer is that both /gɪf/ and /dʒɪf/ are fine – you can say GIF with the hard g of gift or the soft g of gin. Or you can say the letters: “gee eye eff”.

Some people insist on soft-g GIF, as in “jif”. They say it’s “up to the creators”, and “jif” is what the format’s inventors indicated. But this presumes a non-existent authority: the creators don’t get to lay down a planet-wide law, nor does anyone on their behalf. Pronunciation develops through general agreement – it’s up to everyone who uses the term – and most people seem to prefer hard-g GIF.

Philosoraptor meme - Is it 'gif' or 'gif'Gi- is inherently ambiguous, pronunciation-wise. We have hard-g gift, gills, giddy, give and giggles, soft-g gin, giblets, Gilly, giant and gist.* (There’s a Scandinavian flavour to the hard-g set.) So it’s not surprising the pronunciation of a new gi- term would split this way. But there aren’t many gif- words apart from gift, so it’s not surprising either that hard-g GIF predominates. The g‘s origin in graphics is another factor in its favour.

But there’s no question both are acceptable: Oxford Dictionaries sanction both, as do Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary, each of them based on extensive data of what people say. There is more than one right way – there often is – and declaring otherwise doesn’t make it otherwise.

Soft-g GIF may gradually fade, or it may retain minor currency. A continued split would not be a problem. Millions of people pronounce schedule with a sh- sound; other millions go with sk-. Communication is roomy enough to contain such discrepancies, and if confusion arises people are smart and imaginative enough to figure it out. Though I can’t speak for Philosoraptor.

Out of curiosity, how do you pronounce GIF? Feel free to vote in this poll or to add your thoughts below.

*

* In phonetics, /g/ is a voiced velar stop and /dʒ/ is a voiced palato-alveolar affricate.


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