He cursed the curse that would not come

April 14, 2014

Language is a recurring theme in The Reawakening, Primo Levi’s account of his life in the months immediately after liberation from Auschwitz. In particular, the book describes many encounters with people of different tongues and how he and they find ways to communicate based on second, third, or no languages in common.

Other features of language emerge in the book’s frequently wonderful characterisations. A description of the foul-mouthed “Moor from Verona”, for instance, begins with physical detail:

There were about twenty others in my dormitory, including Leonardo and Cesare; but the most outstanding personality, of more than human stature, was the oldest among them, the Moor from Verona. . . . He was over seventy, and showed all his years; he was a great gnarled old man with huge bones like a dinosaur, tall and upright on his haunches, still as strong as a horse, although age and fatigue had deprived his bony joints of their suppleness. His bald cranium, nobly convex, was encircled at its base with a crown of white hair; but his lean, wrinkled face was of a jaundice-like colour, while his eyes, beneath enormous brows like ferocious dogs lurking at the back of a den, flashed yellow and bloodshot.

And from there builds a picture of a man at once enigmatic and larger than life yet who is accommodated comfortably in the expansive pages of Levi’s memoir.

In the Moor’s chest, skeletal yet powerful, a gigantic but indeterminate anger raged ceaselessly; a senseless anger against everybody and everything, against the Russians and the Germans, against Italy and the Italians, against God and mankind, against himself and us, against day when it was day, and against night when it was night, against his destiny and all destinies, against his trade, even though it was a trade that ran in his blood. He was a bricklayer; for fifty years, in Italy, America, France, then again in Italy, and finally in Germany, he had laid bricks, and every brick had been cemented with curses. He cursed continuously, but not mechanically; he cursed with method and care, acrimoniously, pausing to find the right word, frequently correcting himself and losing his temper when unable to find the word he wanted; then he cursed the curse that would not come.

While it’s admirable to take such care over swearing practices, it may be better to just unleash any expletive at all than to compound the frustration in a vain search for the perfect curse. But to each their own.


Language police: check your privilege and priorities

April 2, 2014

Earlier this year Ragan.com published an article titled “15 signs you’re a word nerd”. Alongside a couple of unobjectionable items (You love to read; You know the difference between “e.g.” and “i.e.”) and some that didn’t apply to me (You have at least three word games on your phone) were several that I got stuck on:

Typos and abbreviations in texts drive you a little crazy.

No, not even a little. There are more than enough things in the world to be bothered by without getting worked up over trivial mistakes and conventional shortcuts in phone messages. (I assume texts here is short for text messages: obviously the “good” kind of abbreviation…)

It’s a question of register. How formally correct our language is, or needs to be, depends on context. Text messages seldom require standard English to be fully observed, and most people who text me have no difficulty code-switching appropriately. Nor do I have any difficulty coping with this informal variety of the language. Next!

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Palindromic poems and related wordplay

April 1, 2014

As a child I was very taken with anagrams and palindromes and similar wordplay. The interest waned or mutated over the years, but not fully, so when I stumbled upon Howard W. Bergerson’s book Palindromes and Anagrams (Dover Publications, 1973) in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop, available for all of €2, I quickly picked it up.

palindromes and anagrams - howard w bergerson, book coverThe book contains most or all of the well-known palindromes, like Madam, I’m Adam, Able was I ere I saw Elba, Live not on evil, and (maybe most famously) A man, a plan, a canal – Panama; to which, incidentally, J. A. Lindon wrote a parody: A dog, a pant, a panic in a Patna pagoda. Other enjoyable one-liners include:

Drab as a fool, as aloof as a bard.

Hell! A spacecraft farce caps all, eh?

Did I do, O God, did I as I said I’d do? Good, I did!

I saw desserts; I’d no lemons, alas no melon. Distressed was I.

The next three invited combination into a cryptic mini-narrative:

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‘Emphatic’ quotation marks and consonant doubling

March 29, 2014

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, one on errant punctuation and one on a sometimes tricky aspect of spelling and morphology.

The ‘emphatic’ use of quotation marks summarises accepted uses of quotation marks, including scare quotes, before considering a common but non-standard use:

Sometimes people use quotation marks to stress a word or phrase, and this clashes with the general understanding of how the marks – and scare quotes – are properly used. In a comment to my recent article on the use of apostrophes, Kristen said she found this habit troublesome, offering the example ‘fresh’ fish, which inadvertently casts doubt on the freshness of the fish – the very opposite impression to what’s intended.

If you saw a window sign for ‘homemade’ stew or a label promising ‘delicious’ waffles, would the punctuation affect how you imagine the food? What about a cosmetic product that’s ‘good’ for your hair, or a claim that a service is ‘free’?

All the examples are real, found in the “Quotation Mark” Abuse pool on Flickr. My post presents the case for the defence, then provides some truly puzzling examples.

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Patterns of consonant doubling looks at whether and when to double consonants at the end of suffixed words. Fluent speakers, who tend to have a feel for the rules,

know that nod forms nodded and red redder (doubling the d), yet brood forms brooded and dead deader (no doubling). Turning flop into an adjective by adding the suffix -y gives us floppy, doubling the p, but soap becomes soapy, with no doubling.

Vowels play an important role. Notice the short vowel in nod and flop and the relatively long ones in brood and soap. Short vowels tend to mean we double the final consonant; long vowels tend to mean we don’t. The latter are often detectable by the word’s ending with e after a consonant: compare mop (mopped) and mope (moped), tap (tapped) and tape (taped), pin (pinned) and pine (pined), and similar pairs.

The article goes on to explain the role played by syllable stress (compare offered and referred), notes exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions, and concludes with the best possible rule for dealing with this messy area.

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome here or at Macmillan; older articles on words and language are available in the archive.


An European vs. A European

March 24, 2014

E. P. Thompson’s magisterial History of the English Working Class (1963) contains a short, innocuous phrase that nonetheless pulled me up short: “The population ‘explosion’ can be seen as an European phenomenon”. Then later, the same formulation: “the materials for an European and a British frame of reference”.

I don’t remember ever hearing a native English speaker – which Thompson is – say an European, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much. It may be a generational thing, among other factors.

The OED includes several standard pronunciations, all starting with [j] – the “y” sound of you, aka the voiced palatal approximant – which would ordinarily be preceded by “a”, not “an”. But English inherited the word from French Européen (from Latin, from Greek), which begins with a vowel sound, not a [j].

This may explain the gradual switch in both UK and US English, if not the timing (click to enlarge):

google ngram viewer - a european vs an european us and uk english

Or maybe someone better informed on these matters will edify us in the comments.

The inexorable decline of an European is confirmed by a search in COHA, whose most recent example is decades old (“convening of an European constitutional convention”, Christian Science Monitor, 1952). A comparison with GloWbE, however, shows it’s not unheard of in unedited (or unprofessionally edited) writing around the world:

an european in coha vs. glowbe corpus comparison

A search on Twitter shows likewise, though a brief examination of the results suggests it’s mainly non-native English speakers who use it.

Have you seen or heard, or do you say, an European? What do you make of such an usage?


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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Willy-nilly apostrophes and apocope

February 24, 2014

My fortnightly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues with three new posts. First: Apocope is not to be dissed resumes an unofficial series on different types of word formation. Apocope involves the loss of sounds from the ends of words:

The verb help was helpan in Old English and helpen in Middle English, and though its related past participle holpen survives in some US dialects, the word has otherwise definitively lost that final sound. . . .

Apocope is a term in diachronic (or historical) linguistics, as in the examples above. But it also applies on a shorter timescale to changes that are a sort of elision. Thus cinematograph gives us cinema; popular, pop; traditional, trad; veteran and veterinary surgeon, vet; microphone, mike; detoxification, detox; disrespect, dis or diss, and so on.

I look at a couple of examples of apocope in more detail, and show how words undergoing this change are apt to be colloquial at first.

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Willy-nilly word development sketches the history of the reduplicative phrase willy-nilly, which has two common senses: 1. whether willingly or not; 2. carelessly, randomly, haphazardly.

Nill is the old negative of will in the sense ‘to want’ or ‘to be willing’. This pair of opposites often collocated, as in the line from a Celtic fairy tale ‘will she nill she marry him’.

Willy-nilly came about through paired phrases of the form nill he, will he; nill I, will I; and nill ye, will ye. As Paula Kadose Radetzky writes in her scholarly history of willy-nilly (PDF), ‘all of the finite clause types of the form will [x], nill [x] collapsed into the expression willy-nilly, and it took on the form of an adverb.’ Her paper shows how this led to some ambiguity on account of the pronouns disappearing.

Read the rest for more on the divergent meanings of willy-nilly, and how reduplication might have affected its semantic shift.

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Finally, Apostrophe do’s, dos and don’ts reflects on a recent kerfuffle over apostrophes being officially removed from street signs in Cambridge before being unofficially, then officially, reinstated.

Noting the different and changing styles of different authorities (do’s and dos, 1950’s and 1950s), and the extreme rhetoric and dire warnings from certain quarters, I advise equanimity and flexibility in our attitudes to this contentious mark:

This kind of variation is a normal part of the great sprawl of English usage. As a proofreader and editor I apply contemporary standards of correctness – and, where these vary, consistency and adherence to a regional or house style. As a reader I wince at its–it’s confusion – especially in formal contexts, where, as Michael notes, it can diminish authority.

But I don’t get worked up over apostrophes dropped from street signs or added to grocers’ signs. I wouldn’t lose sleep if they were abandoned altogether, though that would be easier said than done, and some apostrophes are useful for avoiding ambiguity.

Are you an apostrophe activist or a disinterested observer? Maybe you’ll even be moved to rhyme about it, as some have done in the comments.

Your thoughts in any form, on this or the other posts, are welcome. Older articles on word lore and language usage are available in the archive.


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