The ‘heighth’ of embarrassment

August 17, 2016

Cynthia Heimel’s entertaining collection of short articles If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too? has a funny piece on mispronouncing a word – something we can all probably relate to. In this case it’s a common word, the speaker discovers the ‘mistake’ relatively late in life, and, as we’ll see, it’s not really a mistake at all.

The piece is presented as a letter to an agony aunt, originally published, I think, in Heimel’s column for The Village Voice:

Dear Problem Lady:

All my life I’ve said “heighth.” I thought that’s what you said. Then today my friend said to me, “It’s ‘height,’ isn’t it? At least I think so.”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess it is, now that I think about it,” I said casually.

“I thought so,” she said.

I wanted to kill myself.

She knew damned well it was “height,” and she finally couldn’t stand it anymore.

I see the word clearly in my mind and it sure doesn’t have an h at the end of it. I’ve been obsessing for ten hours now. Forty-two years, I’ve said “heighth.” And I’m a horse trainer, can you guess how many times I’ve said “heighth” in my career? I’m so mortified I think I should go up to everyone I know and say, “Look, I know it’s really height, okay? I’m not stupid or anything.”

But then they’d think I was stupid and insane.

Should I just find a way to inject “height” into every conversation I have for the rest of my life?


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Pelecanos: the words, the rhythms, the slang

July 28, 2016

I’m slowly catching up on the back catalogue of George Pelecanos, who has written about 20 crime fiction novels (and also wrote for The Wire). Recently I read Hell to Pay (2002), which contains several items of linguistic or metalinguistic interest.

The book is one of a handful by Pelecanos that centre on private detectives Derek Strange and Terry Quinn, the first black, the second white, the two ex-cops.

Terry Quinn goes looking for information from sex workers. He bums a cigarette as a way into conversation, but being a non-smoker he has nothing to light it with. Then he encounters Stella, a ‘pale’ girl ‘maybe knocking on the door of seventeen’:

She sat down without invitation. He handed her the cigarette.

‘You got a light?’


‘You need a new rap,’ she said, rooting through her shoulder bag for a match. Finding a book, she struck a flame and put fire to the cigarette. ‘The one you got is lame.’

‘You think so?’

‘You be hittin’ those girls up for a smoke, you don’t ask ’em for a light, you don’t even have a match your own self?’

Quinn took in the girl’s words, the rhythms, the dropping of the g’s, the slang. Like that of most white girls selling it on the street, her speech was an affectation, a strange in-and-out blend of Southern cracker and city black girl.

‘Pretty stupid, huh?’

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The Old Ways and the old words

June 16, 2016

Find beauty; be still. —W.H. Murray

On a visit to Galway City Library last week I happened upon Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Hamish Hamilton, 2012), and promptly whisked it from the shelf. A friend had lent me Macfarlane’s The Wild Places a few months ago (thanks, JC) and it proved a highlight of my reading year.

Macfarlane is an English academic and author who writes about nature, travel, landscape and literature and how one influences or nourishes the other. The Old Ways takes pathways as its primary motif: the tracks we find and make across land and sea and how they signify and affect our relationship to place.

A few language-related excerpts follow. First, an entertaining note on the polyglottism of George Borrow, ‘the most charismatic of modern walker-writers’, who Macfarlane says ‘inspired the surge in path-following and old-way romance that occurred in mid-nineteenth-century Europe and America’:

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Up to your oxters in Gaelic expressions

June 4, 2016

Up to your oxters (or my oxters, etc.) is a phrase I often heard growing up in County Mayo in Ireland. Oxter means ‘armpit’, normally, so up to your oxters means ‘up to your armpits’ – whether literally or figuratively. You could be up to your oxters in a river or in housework.

The word is used in dialects in Ireland, Scotland, England, and the Isle of Man. As well as signifying the armpit, it can refer to the underside of the upper arm more generally, to the fold of the arm when bent against the body, and to the armhole of a coat or jacket.

Oxter also has various verb senses. The OED lists these as: ‘to support by the arm, walk arm in arm with; to take or carry under the arm; to embrace, put one’s arm around’. It dates the earliest example to Robert Burns in 1796: ‘The Priest he was oxter’d, the Clerk he was carried.’ The noun is centuries older.

stan carey - scariff Irish seed savers - tall grass up to your oxters

Tall grass up to your oxters, at Irish Seed Savers in Scariff, County Clare

The etymology of oxter is surprisingly complicated, but the word is of clearly Germanic cast. From the OED:

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The problem with stigmatising slang and dialect in schools

May 4, 2016

I have an article in the Guardian this week in response to yet another school cracking down on students’ use of slang, regional dialect, and informal language. It’s in the Opinion section and is titled There’s nowt wrong with dialects, nothing broke ass about slang.

(Pretend there’s a hyphen in broke-ass.) Here’s an excerpt:

Standard English is a prestige dialect of huge social value. It’s important that students learn it. But the common belief that nonstandard means substandard is not just false but damaging, because it fosters prejudice and hostility. Young people can be taught formal English, and understand its great cultural utility, without being led to believe there’s something inferior or shameful about other varieties. . . .

People feel strongly about correctness in language, but this strength of feeling isn’t always matched by knowledge and tolerance. And because children are sensitive to how they’re perceived, stigmatising their everyday speech can be harmful. By educating them about linguistic diversity instead of proscribing it, we can empower students and deter misguided pedantry.

I’ve been reading the Guardian for as long as I can remember, so I’m glad to finally write something for it. (That split infinitive is a bonus.) The comments section is proving lively, as you’d expect, and I’m joining in here and there. Your thoughts are welcome at either location.


John E. McIntyre follows up at the Baltimore Sun, where he elaborates on ‘why schoolteachers’ policing of language is so misguided’.

toy story woody buzz meme - slang dialect linguistic diversity

English Dialect Dictionary Online

May 1, 2016

Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (EDD) is a monumental work by any standard. Published in six volumes from 1898–1905, with detailed entries across 4505 double-columned pages, it’s all the more impressive given that its author was largely self-taught and could not read until his mid-teens. (He described himself as ‘an idle man all my life’.)

joseph wright english dialect dictionaryAfter studying philology in Germany, Wright began his pioneering work in English dialectology, aiming in the EDD to include ‘the complete vocabulary of dialect words’ in use since 1700. The Oxford Companion to the English Language says ‘nothing of comparable breadth or depth of dialect scholarship has been published in Britain since’.

The EDD is available in various formats at the Internet Archive, but those hefty PDFs can be unwieldy. The good news – great news, for word lovers – is that the book has finally been digitised and is now free and ready to use ‘by all private people, researchers, students and amateurs’. Just accept the terms of use – respect the EDD Online’s special copyright – and away you go.

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The whole race of unreal people

April 7, 2016

Time is against me these days, but I want to share a few passages of linguistic interest from Lorna Sage’s remarkable memoir Bad Blood. Sage, who was a professor of English and a literary critic, grew up in a village called Hanmer in north Wales. This first excerpt, which considers the local dialect, follows a note on Thomas Hardy:

Hanmer wasn’t on his [Hardy’s] patch, of course, but you could picture the Maelor district as a mini-Wessex, less English, less fertile, lacking a writer to describe it. The local dialect did make a lot of the syllable ‘Ur’ that he singles out in Tess to stand for the ancient burr you can hear in country voices. In Hanmer grammar ‘Ur’ or ‘’Er’ was the all-purpose pronoun used for men, women, children, cattle, tractors. It implied a kind of levelling, as though all were objects, and you could use it for a tree or a stone, too. In my memory it’s always associated with negatives – ‘dunna’, ‘conna’, ‘wunna’. You kick a gate that’s warped half off its hinge: ‘’Er wunna open,’ you say without surprise. Everything had its own sullen, passive power of resistance.

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