Since my last report on activities at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve written several articles there about words and language. Time for a quick recap. March was the website’s month of sporting English. Coming from a family of sports enthusiasts (and having played a lot myself), I enjoyed exploring various aspects of sporting lingo.
In Be a sport about clichés, I take issue with Edwin Newman’s lament that there is “no way to measure the destructive effect of sports broadcasting on ordinary American English”, and I offer a partial defence of clichés and sports commentary in general:
When the umpteenth soccer pundit (typically a former player) tells us it’s a “game of two halves”, we might sigh wearily, grudgingly acknowledge the validity of this tired truism, or idly wish there were a fresh way of saying it, or more ways of not saying it at all.
Perhaps even more reviled is “at the end of the day”. This throwaway idiom is also popular with politicians – Irish ones, anyway – and means something between “ultimately” and nothing whatsoever. Its versatility and existential vagueness might be partly why it’s so commonly used: novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has defended it as “very deep” and “very close to reflecting the human condition”.
Next up is an article about the word goal: I briefly explore its origins and semantics, and I recall my childhood confusion over the meaning of hat trick, born of my inability to sensibly interpret a frame of the comic strip Billy’s Boots.
Stepping temporarily into a different field of play, I address the matter of linguistic register and “code switching”, especially in the interactions of students and professors. Is it appropriate, I wonder, to begin a semi-formal email with the words “Hey Professor”?
There’s a lot going on in and around a word. This is shown clearly in the image below, which is a slide from Michael Rundell’s presentation on language technology and lexicography:
Using the word word as an example, in the post In a word I take a closer look at the fuzzy edges and multiple possibilities of a word, showing how in many cases
word doesn’t mean “a word” so much as a number of words that convey a certain kind of message. This is an example of metonymy, where a word or phrase is used to refer to something with which it has a close semantic relationship – to transfer a concept to an adjacent domain, as linguist Guy Deutscher put it (metaphor involves transfer to a distant domain). Along the same lines, we sometimes use tongue as a metonym for speech and language.
These sorts of metaphors are so commonplace, they are likely to pass us by unless we foster the habit of noticing them. On Twitter recently I posted a link to an article on metaphor by Diane Nicholls, called “What we talk about when we talk about words and language”. It generated a lot of interest, and it’s easy to see why.
Back to the sporting series. Blunt as a bag of wet mice is my post about the very original commentating style of Ray Hudson. Such is his passion for soccer, he often forgoes balance and calm for an excited flood of superlatives and strange similes, producing such quotable gems as “happy as a banjo player” and “like a big werewolf with a plate of liver in front of it”.
Appropriately enough, April is the month of metaphorical English at Macmillan. Sports and metaphors make a good team, but why do some sports generate more metaphors than others? Does it have more to do with class than popularity? This page conveniently gathers articles and resources on metaphor; I’ll be adding to it over the next few weeks, and all my archived articles are available here.