Blatherskite and Shakespearean peeving

July 13, 2016

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, both in a historical vein. First up, Blethering about blatherskite explores a colourful term for nonsense (or for someone talking nonsense):

Blatherskite is a compound in two parts. It was formed by joining blather – a noun and verb referring to long-winded, empty talk – with skite, a Scottish insult with ancestry in an Old Norse word for excrement (skite is related to shit).

Macmillan Dictionary labels blatherskite as American and informal. There’s no surprise about the second label: the word doesn’t appear often in print, occurring more in vernacular use. But since blatherskite originates in Scots, it’s curious that it should have become a chiefly American word.

The post goes on to explain how it crossed the Atlantic and discusses its phonetic suitability.

*

As You Dislike It considers the word very as an intensifier – a usage that prompted some protest when it first began to spread:

Very was originally used to indicate that something was true or real, as in the phrase ‘he was a veri prophett’ in William Tyndale’s Bible of 1526. This meaning, though less fashionable now, is still used, and its semantic root is apparent in words like verity, veracity, and verify. Only later did people start using the word as an intensifier.

This emerging, emphatic use of very became extremely common in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare not only uses the word this way, but in Romeo and Juliet (2.4.28–32) he draws attention to conservative attitudes towards this change . . .

If you’re thinking of the parallel with literally – in both semantic development and conservative backlash – you wouldn’t be alone. I look at these and other aspects in the rest of the post.

Older articles can be read at my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.


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, apparently. 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 is of clearly Germanic cast. From the OED:

Read the rest of this entry »


Otto Jespersen on language: ‘Everything is dynamic’

May 26, 2016

Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin by Danish linguist Otto Jespersen appeared almost a century ago, in 1922. It has inevitably dated in some respects – e.g., occasional sexism and ethnocentrism – but in linguistic outlook it feels for the most part thoroughly modern, compared with some commentary on language change and grammar even today.

In March I read the elegant hardback copy (Unwin Brothers, 1959) of Language I picked up in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop last year. A few excerpts follow, more or less in the order they appear in the book.

The first four chapters, comprising Book I, offer an illuminating history of linguistics as a science. They also feature this eloquent diversion on ‘correctness’:

The normative way of viewing language is fraught with some great dangers which can only be avoided through a comprehensive knowledge of the historic development of languages and of the general conditions of linguistic psychology. Otherwise, the tendency everywhere is to draw too narrow limits for what is allowable or correct. In many cases one form, or one construction, only is recognized, even where two or more are found in actual speech; the question which is to be selected as the only good form comes to be decided too often by individual fancy or predilection, where no scientific tests can yet be applied, and thus a form may often be proscribed which from a less narrow point of view might have appeared just as good as, or even better than, the one preferred in the official grammar or dictionary. In other instances, where two forms were recognized, the grammarian wanted to give rules for their discrimination, and sometimes on the basis of a totally inadequate induction he would establish nice distinctions not really warranted by actual usage – distinctions which subsequent generations had to learn at school with the sweat of their brows and which were often considered most important in spite of their intrinsic insignificance.

If you haven’t read Jespersen, the passage gives a fair sense of his style: formal in a lightly scholarly way, but infused with lively vernacular (‘the sweat of their brows’) and altogether accessible. He writes long sentences that build to long paragraphs, but his care for logic means the complexity is noticed chiefly in its appreciation; he has a talent too for the pithy phrase.

Discussing Wilhelm von Humboldt, Jespersen zeroes in on the fundamental dynamism of language, and the related fact that speech is primary:

Read the rest of this entry »


‘Answer’, a swear in plain sight

May 23, 2016

Some familiar words have etymologies right in front of us yet apt to stay hidden. Breakfast breaks a fast, the vowels disguising it well. Remorse is ‘biting back’, your conscience gnawing at you. Semicolon is a folk etymology of samey colon, on account of its resemblance to the other mark.

geoffrey hughes - swearing a social history of foul language, oaths and profanity in englishOK, I made that one up.

I read a nice account of another such etymology in Geoffrey Hughes’s Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanities in English (1991). The book packs considerable detail, scholarly insight and amusing lists into its 280 pages, so I’ll follow its lead and keep this post short.1

In a section on ‘numinous words: charms, spells and runes’, Hughes writes:

One of the most dramatic instances of the use of a malign spell in Anglo-Saxon literature is wrought by the monster Grendel [in Beowulf].2 Described as one of the evil tribe of Cain and an enemy of the Lord, he puts a spell on the weapons of his victims, the Scyldings. The key verb in the text at this point is, fascinatingly, forsworen, literally ‘forsworn’, indicating that the verb forswerian could mean ‘to hinder by swearing; to render powerless by incantation; to make useless by magic’.

Hughes goes on to relate other examples of such word-magic from the Life of St Wilfrid and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Then he quotes from The Battle of Maldon and picks up the -swear- thread again:

Read the rest of this entry »


Dreaming about words and raccoons

January 10, 2016

A dream I had during the week may be of passing linguistic interest.

A small group of people were speaking informally to each other. I was both one of them and not, in that way dreams have of detuning subjectivity. It wasn’t a group conversation but something more loose and staged, and most of the verbal content escapes me. The curious thing is that whenever someone said the word chiefly – which they did in most utterances – they gently threw a raccoon to the person they were speaking to. The raccoon didn’t seem to mind.

That’s pretty much it. The dream didn’t last long, but its contents were so memorably silly (and explicitly linguistic) that I mentioned it on Twitter when I got up. Writer Melissa Harrison suggested that it might have been connected to the raccoon that lost its candy floss – a story currently doing the quirky-news rounds.

Continuing her dream-detective work, Melissa asked if I’d used or read the word chiefly the day before, and I realised that I had (in a post for Strong Language, which I’ll write separately about later), and that I’d lingered on it a moment to make sure it was the right adverb. These real-world prompts for the dreamt material can’t be definitive, but they seem likely, especially the raccoon.

Read the rest of this entry »


Due to Alice in Blenderland

December 16, 2015

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Due to general usage, this phrase is fine looks at the compound preposition due to, my use of which in the post title would be considered ungrammatical by some prescriptivists:

They say due must function as an adjective, which it commonly does after a linking verb. So they would accept a phrase like: ‘Our delay was due to traffic’, but not: ‘We were delayed due to traffic’. Fowler considered the latter usage ‘illiterate’ and ‘impossible’, while Eric Partridge said it was ‘not acceptable’.

These judgements, which have been inherited by some of today’s critics, may seem unnecessarily restrictive to you. They certainly do to me, and to the millions of English speakers who for centuries have ignored the ‘rule’. Writers, too.

The post goes on to show a change in attitudes in favour of the usage, and why there’s nothing grammatically wrong with it anyway.

*

Humpty Dumpty and Alice through the looking-glass portmanteau - John TennielAlice in Blenderland completes my series of posts on Alice in Wonderland to mark the 150th anniversary of the book’s publication by Macmillan in 1865. It reviews the portmanteau words (aka blends) that Lewis Carroll coined:

Carroll’s famous nonsense poem ‘Jabberwocky’, which features in Through the Looking-Glass, supplies several examples. Some have entered general use: chortle, for instance, is an expressive term blending chuckle and snort; galumph (appearing in the poem as galumphing) may derive from gallop and triumphant; and burble combines bleat, murmur, and warble – though Carroll could not recall creating it this way, and burble has also been a variant spelling of bubble since the fourteenth century.

I then look at some of Carroll’s lesser known portmanteaus and some lesser liked ones that he had nothing to do with – at least not directly.

My older posts on words and language for Macmillan Dictionary can be viewed here.


Jiving with the Cheshire cat

November 19, 2015

I’ve a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First, Does a jive jibe with a gibe? attempts to disentangle a knotty congregation of homophones and near-homophones (including gybe, not mentioned in the title), and to explain what lies behind their frequent confusion:

Another common use of the verb jibe is to indicate agreement: ‘if two things jibe, they agree or contain similar information’. Often followed by with, it’s synonymous with match or tally. If you’re familiar with this usage, you might say my description jibes with your understanding of it. Sometimes jive or gibe are used instead, but neither spelling is standard here.

The (mis)use of jive for jibe ‘agree, correspond’ is common, perhaps motivated by metaphor: the idea of two things jiving (i.e., swing-dancing) together is a coherent analogy for harmony. The strong phonetic likeness also contributes to the confusion, with just the similar-sounding bilabial /b/ and labiodental /v/ differentiating a minimal pair.

*

john tenniel cheshire cat grinning in alice's adventures in wonderlandNext is my post Why do we ‘grin like a Cheshire cat’?, on the obscure origins of this popular phrase. It continues my series for Macmillan on the language of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, a book the publisher introduced to the world 150 years ago:

That the phrase’s origin is unknown has led to some interesting speculation. Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice, notes two possibilities: that it derives from grinning lions painted on the signs of inns in Cheshire – where Carroll grew up – or that it comes from a tradition of Cheshire cheeses being moulded into the shape of grinning cats, or marked that way.

Graeme Donald’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase finds the latter hypothesis ‘suspect’ because of the ‘very crumbly texture’ of the cheese in question. He cites Eric Partridge’s suggestion that Cheshire here is ‘a corruption of cheeser’, but doesn’t think cats like cheese enough to make this etymology likely.

I note a couple of other possibilities and also briefly discuss the Cat’s mystique in Carroll’s story. Older posts can be read in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 23,503 other followers