Afterlives of words and birds

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Words change, and that’s OK looks at a new series by Macmillan on word use and language change, and concludes that – despite what language cranks would have you believe – etymology is not the boss of meaning:

This month Macmillan Dictionary introduced its Real Vocabulary series, which assesses word use based on the evidence of usage rather than myth, hearsay, and pet preference. In a video about awesome, for example, Scott Thornbury points to the Dictionary’s secondary meaning  for the word, which defines it as ‘extremely good’, labels it ‘informal’, and says it is ‘used mainly by young people’. This supplies enough information and context to understand the word’s recent extension, and is infinitely more helpful than complaining about it or rejecting it as wrong.

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john tenniel engraving of dodo, alice's adventures in wonderland by lewis carrollIn The dodo is dead, long live the dodo, I reflect on dodo the word and dodo the bird, now sadly extinct but with an afterlife of sorts in literature (such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – a line from which gave this blog its name) and in expressions like dead as a dodo:

The dodo seems to have got its name from either Portuguese doudo ‘foolish, simple’ or Dutch dodoor ‘sluggard’; alternatively it may be onomatopoeic, mimicking the bird’s call (PDF). In any case, from the late 19thC the word was applied to people thought to be stupid or behaving stupidly: F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a letter about someone who ‘had been a dodo’ about something. But it’s the phrase dead as a dodo that resonates most strongly nowadays, and serves also as a reminder of a unique creature now lost.

Older posts can be read at my Macmillan Dictionary archive.

8 Responses to Afterlives of words and birds

  1. language cranks, haha, i like that, and it’s true, etymology is not the boss of meaning, but rather only one in a family tree of meanings.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Quite right. Etymology just gets exploited by people indulging in petty point-scoring and pointless one-upmanship.

      • astraya says:

        Sometimes etymology throws up an interesting snippet. I remember learning that the Latin word for ‘tomorrow’ is ‘cras’, so ‘procrastination’ is ‘putting off until tomorrow’. Despite knowing that, I don’t insist, to me or anyone else, that procrastination is *only* putting off until tomorrow. One can procrastinate for minutes or hours, or days, weeks, months or years. Why am I typing this now instead of heading off to the gym in the rain?

    • astraya says:

      Procrastination may be its own punishment. Shortly after typing my previous comment, I sneezed awkwardly and aggravated my bad back. Now I can hardly stand up.

      • Stan Carey says:

        I’d never thought about the etymology of procrastination before. Good to know. I hope your back recovers soon, so you can procrastinate at your ease instead of being forced to.

  2. astraya says:

    Yesterday, through a bus window, I saw a shop called ‘DDO DDO’ (written like that). I went back this evening. It is a shoe and accessory shop. It might refer to the bird, but why, and why style it in that way? It might also be a transliteration of Korean 또 (ddo), which means ‘in addition, again, and’. (Possibly, 또또 might mean ‘again and again’.) But a version of the name in hangeul doesn’t appear anywhere on the shopfront.

  3. astraya says:

    Around the corner from 또또 the shoe shop is a dress shop called 도도 (Dodo). I assume that each owner is aware of the other. ㄷ and ㄸ are distinct phonemes in Korean, but that’s a bit close!

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