Dictionary style labels: a Macmillan series

For my column at Macmillan Dictionary, I’ve been looking at its style labels – supplementary terms like ‘humorous’, ‘formal,’ ‘offensive’, and ‘literary’ that are not part of a word’s definition but lend useful detail about it, especially for English-language learners:

Style labels help us become more familiar with the many varieties of English, especially if we’re learning the language. They enable us to use English more effectively and to interpret it more accurately when we hear or see it.

It’s a three-part series.

Part I looks at the formal–informal axis, with particular focus on the Scottish word bawbag. @MacDictionary’s tweet about bawbag – which stressed its ‘very informal’ status – made news headlines a few months ago.

Part II looks at the ‘offensive’ label, including the euphemism treadmill that sees terms like retarded go from acceptable to taboo, and words like lunatic that are now in a grey area. I also show how geographical and social factors can affect a word’s offensiveness.

Part III looks at other common labels, such as ‘spoken’, ‘journalism’, and ‘old-fashioned’. One interesting pair for pragmatics is the ‘showing approval’ and ‘showing disapproval’ labels. I also explain why Macmillan does not use the ‘obsolete’ label often found in dictionaries.

All my older posts can be viewed in my Macmillan Dictionary archive. Thanks for reading.

10 Responses to Dictionary style labels: a Macmillan series

  1. Chips Mackinolty says:

    Further to your comments on words being “offensive” in different linguistic communities. While campaigning in Whyalla, South Australia, in 1989, a pensioner by the name of Bob Bell told Prime Minister Hawke that “you get in a week than I do in a year”. Hawke responded by calling Bell a “silly old bugger”. Anecdotally, the Japanese media, somewhat puzzled one assumes, translated this along the lines of “silly aged pederast”. A couple of decades later, the Toyota car company (Japanese!) used the word “Bugger!” in a very successful TV ad series … “Bugger!” in this context as a verbal expression of considerable exasperation. I assume Toyota didn’t use this word in non-Australian advefrtising.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Bugger is a good example of this. I suspect that its original meaning is quite separate from its expletive or insulting use for many people, and in some cases may not even occur to them (a bit like bollocking in this respect). Hopefully we’ll get around to examining it on Strong Language some day.

      • Chips Mackinolty says:

        Can be used affectionately in Australia, as well, as in “he’s a nice little bugger”

        • Stan Carey says:

          In Ireland and the UK too. Sense 1 in GDoS is quite neutral:

          a person, usu. a man, a ‘bloke’; esp. as silly bugger, daft bugger etc, none of which is necessarily pejorative.

          • astraya says:

            Some years ago, one of my sisters (married to an Englishman) objected to me writing ‘bugger’ as an interjection on my travel blog at the time (I think the objection was actually his, not hers). I cited the Toyota ads – if they can use it several times in mainstream commercials, then I can use it once in my blog.

          • Chips Mackinolty says:

            Ah! English people! I spent a year (1966) going to school in London: first time in a place bigger than Sydney or Melbourne … and I came from a rural area. The kids at school were totally shocked at my casual use of the word “bastard” … and I mean really shocked [first year high]. My father explained at the time that English people–he probably used the term “Poms”–were sensitive souls when it came to using the Queen’s English.

          • Stan Carey says:

            Sounds like a reasonable defence. And it’s a nice example of the varying perceptions of a word in a grey area of acceptability.

  2. astraya says:

    I saw the movie ‘Arrival’ yesterday. At one point one of the USAns was talking to an English counterpart (?scientist/military) and the latter called him a ‘cheeky bastard’.

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