A language so precise and secret

November 24, 2015

margaret atwood poems 1976-1986 virago book coverI recently read Margaret Atwood’s Poems 1976–1986, a collection published by Virago Press. While doing so I tweeted an excerpt on her birthday, before I knew it was her birthday: a happy synchronicity. Below are some lines that deal explicitly with language and words.

From ‘Four Small Elegies’:

A language is not words only,
it is the stories
that are told in it,
the stories that are never told.

This verse echoes something Muriel Rukeyser once wrote (‘The universe is made of stories, / not of atoms’), but with a lurch into loss. Atwood’s ‘Two-Headed Poems’ returns repeatedly to the subject of a language’s decline or supersession by another:

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‘Because X’ in Finnish and Norwegian, because borrowing

November 20, 2015

Languages often borrow from one another: it’s a common source of linguistic growth and change. Normally what gets borrowed is words, called ‘loans’, ‘loanwords’, or ‘borrowings’ (though the terms suggest eventual return, which isn’t how it works). Any word that isn’t a loanword is a native word.

English is a frequent borrower, being full of loanwords from many other languages. This ability to integrate foreign forms is one reason for its success. And it goes both ways: because of English’s status and reach, it’s a common ‘donor language’ for others. The World Loanword Database is a useful resource on the phenomenon.

Less often, other linguistic elements are borrowed, like grammatical structures or pronunciations. An example of the former is because X, a popular construction in informal English.* I first wrote about because X in 2013, elsewhere picking it as my word of the year (the American Dialect Society later did likewise). Such was its impact that the phrase was discussed not just by linguists but by more mainstream outlets.

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Jiving with the Cheshire cat

November 19, 2015

I’ve a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First, Does a jive jibe with a gibe? attempts to disentangle a knotty congregation of homophones and near-homophones (including gybe, not mentioned in the title), and to explain what lies behind their frequent confusion:

Another common use of the verb jibe is to indicate agreement: ‘if two things jibe, they agree or contain similar information’. Often followed by with, it’s synonymous with match or tally. If you’re familiar with this usage, you might say my description jibes with your understanding of it. Sometimes jive or gibe are used instead, but neither spelling is standard here.

The (mis)use of jive for jibe ‘agree, correspond’ is common, perhaps motivated by metaphor: the idea of two things jiving (i.e., swing-dancing) together is a coherent analogy for harmony. The strong phonetic likeness also contributes to the confusion, with just the similar-sounding bilabial /b/ and labiodental /v/ differentiating a minimal pair.


john tenniel cheshire cat grinning in alice's adventures in wonderlandNext is my post Why do we ‘grin like a Cheshire cat’?, on the obscure origins of this popular phrase. It continues my series for Macmillan on the language of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, a book the publisher introduced to the world 150 years ago:

That the phrase’s origin is unknown has led to some interesting speculation. Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice, notes two possibilities: that it derives from grinning lions painted on the signs of inns in Cheshire – where Carroll grew up – or that it comes from a tradition of Cheshire cheeses being moulded into the shape of grinning cats, or marked that way.

Graeme Donald’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase finds the latter hypothesis ‘suspect’ because of the ‘very crumbly texture’ of the cheese in question. He cites Eric Partridge’s suggestion that Cheshire here is ‘a corruption of cheeser’, but doesn’t think cats like cheese enough to make this etymology likely.

I note a couple of other possibilities and also briefly discuss the Cat’s mystique in Carroll’s story. Older posts can be read in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

English is not going to the dogs

November 17, 2015

Those of you interested in the ‘usage wars’ I mentioned in my post about descriptivism and editing may want to set a couple of hours aside sometime to watch this lively public debate on the topic hosted last year by Intelligence Squared.

The loaded title, ‘Between You and I the English Language Is Going to the Dogs’, invites the sort of bewailing you hear from linguistic conservatives worried that semantic drift, slangy innovation and nonstandard usage are imperilling English. But two members of the four-person panel counter this alarmist clamour.

Speakers for the motion are Simon Heffer, who reliably conflates standard English with ‘correct’ English, and John Humphrys, who rambles sometimes amiably but seems a bit out of his depth.

Speakers against the motion are Mary Beard, who brings a welcome dose of perspective (and non-maleness) to proceedings, and Oliver Kamm, whose excellent book Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage tipped me off about the debate. Kamm is articulate and persuasive and has a nice line in polite exasperation: ‘Gentlemen, get a grip!’

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Reconciling descriptivism with editing

November 10, 2015

A very long time ago (in internet terms, that is – 2010), I wrote a post about the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism, a sometimes false dichotomy that nonetheless can serve as a basic model of two broad approaches to language use. Put simply:

Descriptivists describe how language is used (and they may infer rules from that data).

Prescriptivists prescribe how language should be used (and they may enforce rules based on authority, tradition, house style, logic, personal preference, etc.).

Despite what you’ll sometimes hear about the ‘usage wars’, it’s not a black and white scenario: the sides overlap. I’m descriptivist in principle, but as an editor–proofreader by trade I wear a prescriptive hat, ensuring that clients’ prose is consistently styled and accords with the current norms of standard English or whatever register is desired in a given context.

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He/she finds his/her pronouns a problem

November 3, 2015

kim newman - nightmare movies - horror on screen since the 1960sI’ve been stop-start-reading the revised edition of Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies, a gift from my brother; it’s an encyclopaedic and thoroughly enjoyable account of Horror on Screen Since the 1960s, as the subtitle has it. (OK, OK, 1960’s.)

One chapter traces the development of the haunted house genre in film and literature, and upon reaching the landmark release of Rosemary’s Baby it offers an eye-catching usage:

There is no ghost, except the angry shade of Beethoven invoked by the unseen pianist’s stumbling attempts to get through Für Elise, but the Bramford [Rosemary’s apartment building] does have a Past. Ira Levin refined the parallel plot, a device that has been used in most subsequent haunted house films. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work and pieces the place’s evil past together from newspaper morgues, friendly occultist know-alls, and ageing eyewitnesses.

This use of his/her . . . he/she I found a bit halting and self-conscious. It took me out of the text, and not simply because I attend closely to pronoun use. Instead of conveying the author’s intent discreetly, it’s orthographically conspicuous enough to be distracting. Especially because it’s repeated: one instance might sneak by, but two is a pattern that draws unwanted attention.

I’m going to rework the line in question a few times, so I’ll give each version a number. Here’s the original again:

1. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work…

He/she and his/her are more equitable than generic he and his (which I see depressingly often), but they still give men precedence of position. S/he avoids this, but only by fragmenting she and leaving readers with something weird-looking and effectively unpronounceable. Simple reversals (she/he) are occasionally used, or the slash may be replaced by a conjunction: she or he, he or she.

But there’s another problem. All of these options implicitly adopt a gender binary that excludes people who do not identify as either he or she (see my post on Mx). Writing manuals and style guides commonly note that he/she is awkward or clunky, particularly when repeated, but they seldom acknowledge its politics. One of the reasons I support singular they is that it circumvents this restrictive paradigm.

In Newman’s text, however, simply replacing his/her and he/she with singular their and they could mislead readers into thinking that the new home is the (plural) supernatural forces’, not the (singular) protagonist’s:

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Book spine poem: Travelling shoes

October 30, 2015
[click to enlarge]

stan carey book spine poem - travelling shoes*

Travelling shoes

Heartsick, left for dead
The Italian girl
Alone in Berlin.
All God’s children need
Travelling shoes:
Travels in dreamland,
Other people’s shoes.


Thanks to the authors: Chelsea Cain, Nick Ward with Sinéad O’Brien, Iris Murdoch, Hans Fallada, Maya Angelou, Phil Patton, and Harriet Walter; and to Nina Katchadourian.

See the archive for older book spine poems, aka bookmashes, and let me know if you join in the game.


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