Preoccupied by plain language

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about eponyms, plain English, and words of the year. Below are excerpts from my four posts there during December.

An eponymous kind of fame provides an overview of eponyms that mentions some of their inspirations and the areas of language in which they tend to arise:

The origins of some eponyms are well known, such as boycott from Charles Boycott and mesmerise from Franz Mesmer. Others are less obvious. Sandwich, panic, silhouette, algorithm and nicotine all derive from proper nouns: John Montagu (4th Earl of Sandwich), Pan (Greek god), Etienne de Silhouette (French finance minister), al-Khwārizmī (Persian mathematician) and Jean Nicot (French diplomat who inspired the formal plant name Nicotiana).

Mentor was the name of Odysseus’ friend in The Odyssey, and the word is popular today both as a generic noun for someone who advises another, and as a verb for what they do. [more]

Plain English is Macmillan Dictionary’s theme in December and January, and my next two posts address the subject (as do many in the Sentence first archives).

Plain and simple discusses an awkward use of post as a preposition, before criticising the tendency — widespread in officialdom but by no means exclusive to it —

to jazz up language by replacing plain words with fancy ones for no good reason, for example with what Arthur Quiller-Couch called “vague woolly abstract nouns”. Somehow people feel that simple, everyday language is not impressive enough, and that what’s needed is more abstract and ostentatious vocabulary. Not so.

In a similar vein, I received a letter recently [that] asked the reader to “advise this fact” to the relevant government office. Advise this fact is the kind of jargon — officialese, you could call it — that results when let us know is mistakenly thought to be too informal, and tell and even inform too suspiciously plain. [more]

The Plain English Campaign’s annual awards took place last month. In Fuzzy writing, fussy reading I look at a few of the selections in its “Golden Bull” category. Though some of the winners fully deserve the infamy, other choices struck me as harsh. I explain why before making a seasonal plea for greater tolerance:

Plain English is strong, supple and precise, leaving no room for buzzwords, fuzzy evasions, illogic and obscurity. But we’re all prone to loose language, not to mention typos. . . .

Too often people, including editors, treat minor slips as though they were terrible, shameful acts. I see it a lot on Twitter. This can make people anxious about their language and nervous around editors. Criticism can be constructive and compassionate; why not keep the judgement and scorn to a minimum? [more]

My last post for Macmillan in 2011, appropriately enough, was Preoccupied by words of the year, in which I survey the recent Word of the Year selections from various organisations and consider the front runners in the (then upcoming) American Dialect Society’s event:

As the year ends, lexicographers and other word geeks traditionally put their heads together to choose or vote for a word of the year. It’s not that simple, of course: different groups pick different words in different ways for different reasons. And it’s not always a word — other “vocabulary items” like phrases and parts of words are generally allowed.

Words of the Year can be new or newly prominent or significant. They’re like annual trending topics, pointing to wider concerns in society, and it can be fun to follow the suggestions and the debates over which ones deserve recognition and why.

To find out my Word of the Year, and for links to further reading on the subject, you can read the rest here.

You might also like to browse Macmillan Dictionary Blog’s 10 most popular posts of the year, a list which features a few of my older efforts alongside excellent articles by Lynne Murphy, Vicki Hollett, Dan Clayton and others.


2 Responses to Preoccupied by plain language

  1. kwokhin says:

    I found this blog 30 minutes ago and I now feel like I found great treasure for learning English! :)
    Thank you!
    a student from China

  2. Stan says:

    Thank you and welcome, kwokhin! If there’s a particular aspect of language you’re interested in, the tag cloud on the right-hand side might be useful.

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