Dictionary matters

March 24, 2017

I have dictionaries on the brain – more than usual – having just read and reviewed Kory Stamper’s book Word by Word. So it’s a good time to share a couple of posts I wrote for the blog at Macmillan Dictionary, which, incidentally, underwent a makeover recently.

The first post has a self-explanatory title: What does it mean when a word is not in the dictionary?

No English dictionary includes every single word – not even the Oxford English Dictionary. . . . Nor does the OED – or any other dictionary – include every word from the many sublanguages, dialects, and specialist lingos: this would be an impossible task. Macmillan Dictionary, by contrast, includes historical words only if they’re still in common use. And because it’s primarily a learner’s dictionary, it forgoes obsolete usages altogether. Macmillan’s focus on contemporary language means that one of its strengths is how quickly it keeps up with the changes and new additions to English vocabulary.

The example I focus on is snowflake, in its non-weather-related sense, because it’s common enough that people are encountering it regularly and looking it up, but it’s also new enough that it’s not yet listed in most dictionaries.

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A world of English at Macmillan Dictionary looks at an ongoing series from Macmillan called Real World English. This is a set of videos and blog posts about dialectal variation in English vocabulary and pragmatics, especially between UK and US English in a work context.

One of the motifs of the Real World English series is that these varieties of English have different standards and conventions. None of them are necessarily more correct than any others, but what’s normal and obvious in one dialect may be obscure or ambiguous in another. Being aware of how various Englishes diverge in usage can help us improve our understanding of, and communication with, people who speak another variety. This is an increasingly important skill in work and social situations, now that telecommunications and internet technology have made the world smaller. We often communicate with people on several different continents every day, especially if we use social media.

The post goes on to discuss the range of dialects featured in the series or in other resources on the website, including Brazilian English, Indian English, Philippine English, and so on. You can also read older posts at my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.


Book review: ‘Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries’ by Kory Stamper

March 21, 2017

Dictionaries occupy a unique cultural space straddling invisibility and authority. Those of us with a keen interest in words, be it professional, hobbyist, or obsessive to the point of mania, now and then ponder the mystique of these works of reference. Who writes them? What drew them to the work? How were they trained? Who decides what to include? How, exactly, do dictionaries come to be?

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, answers all the questions you might care to ask a lexicographer. It casts a coruscating light on the never-ending work of a dictionary – ‘a human document, constantly being compiled, proofread, and updated by actual, living, awkward people’ – and also, necessarily, on words themselves in all their strange, slippery wonder.

Each chapter in Word by Word is named after a word that serves as a base from which Stamper explores deeper, broader issues of lexicography and of the English language, such as its history, politics, and essential mutability. For example, ‘Irregardless: On Wrong Words’ examines variety in English negation and the social status of dialects. Stamper’s initial aversion to irregardless, this ‘harbinger of linguistic doom’, softens through exposure and investigation to the point where she becomes ‘America’s foremost “irregardless” apologist’.

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Is the crew plural? Collective complications

March 16, 2017

Speaking of Oliver Sacks, I recently read his book The Island of the Colour-blind and Cycad Island (Picador, 1996). Like all his work, it’s a real treat. But one grammar-related item caught my copy-editor’s eye and is worth examining briefly.

En route to Micronesia, Sacks’s plane lands on Johnston atoll, a heavily militarised mini-island then used to store and test nuclear and chemical weapons. A rough landing damages the craft’s tyres, which need repairing. When the passengers go to stretch their legs in the interval, they are told the island is off-limits. Sacks reads and observes while he waits:

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A sea of language at full boil

March 10, 2017

Jonathan Lethem is an author whose back catalogue I’ve been slowly, happily pecking away at. His protean, genre-blending style will not appeal to all tastes, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the few I’ve read. The most recent of these is Motherless Brooklyn, which won a couple of awards as the century turned. I single it out here because its narrator is obsessed with language.

Lionel Essrog is an orphan now grown up, more or less, and he has Tourette’s syndrome. (In his acknowledgements Lethem mentions Oliver Sacks, whose book An Anthropologist on Mars has a chapter on Tourette’s.) Lethem’s depiction of the syndrome is sympathetic and thoughtful, but he is alive too to its comic and dramatic possibilities, and the novel is often funny, tense, or otherwise affecting.

Lionel’s Tourette’s has its own particular contours, characterised by compulsive counting, ticcing, tapping (people’s shoulders, especially), kissing, collar-fixing, copying other people’s utterances and actions, and a kind of self-fuelling wordplay that draws on words heard or seen and then cannibalises itself unstoppably.

Early in the novel, staking out a meditation centre with a fellow orphan, the word Zendo catches Lionel’s eye and mind:

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How a usage dispute snuck into a Simpsons comic

March 3, 2017

Reporting on a grammar debate in a crime novel by Michael Connelly, I remarked that the politics of English usage can show up anywhere. Sure enough, I just came across a great example in Simpsons Comics Royale, a comic book from Matt Groening and colleagues published by HarperCollins in 2001.

The issue this time is sneaked vs. snuck. It features centrally in a story about Radioactive Man called ‘Planet of the Strange-O’s’, which begins with our eponymous superhero dashing into what he thinks is a portable toilet (‘This is the nicest porta-potty I’ve ever been in!’). But the structure is not a porta-potty but a portal-potty, and by flushing it Radioactive Man ends up (FLUSHOOOOOM!) in another dimension.

Here he is soon surrounded by an army of near-Doppelgangers on a mission. You can recognise them below by their pale, cracked lower faces; Radioactive Man’s, by contrast, is yellow and smooth. The Strange-O’s pressure him to join them, but he resists. That’s when, shibboleth style, a dispute over usage (and semantics) breaks out:

[click images to embiggen]

simpsons-comics-royale-radioactive-man-snuck-1

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Irishly having tea

March 1, 2017

Passing through the pleasingly named town of Gort on my way to the Burren recently, I popped in to a second-hand bookshop and picked up a couple of Brian Moore books I hadn’t read: Catholics and The Doctor’s Wife. Everything I’ve read by Moore has been time well spent, yet most people I ask have not read him, and many have not heard of him.

brian-moore-catholics-books-cover-penguinCatholics (1972) is more novella than novel, around 80 pages long in my Penguin paperback edition. Work won’t allow a single-sitting read today, so I’m taking bites from it on my breaks. The title is straightforwardly descriptive: a young American priest is sent from Rome to a remote island off the west coast of Ireland, where old and new Catholicism square up against each another.

The young priest, Kinsella, has just landed on the island – the first time it hosted a helicopter – and meets with the presiding Abbot in a large parlour. Sitting on rough furniture carved by the local monks, with Atlantic light streaming in through a 13th-century window, they enact a ritual within rituals:

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Harry Bosch, trainee prescriptivist

February 22, 2017

The politics of English usage can show up anywhere. I was reading Michael Connelly’s 2010 crime novel The Reversal – gradually working my way through his back catalogue – when I found it depicting the spread of prescriptivism.

LAPD detective Harry Bosch and his 14-year-old daughter, Madeline, are at breakfast:

He checked his watch. It was time to go.

‘If you’re done playing with your food you can put your bowl in the sink. We have to get going.’

Finished, Dad. You should use the correct word.’

‘Sorry about that. Are you finished playing with your cereal?’

‘Yes.’

‘Good. Let’s go.’

Harry leaves Madeline with Sue Bambrough, her vice principal, for babysitting. He takes the opportunity to consult with the teacher:

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