September 25, 2017
The prefix be- has a wide range of meanings and applications. It can be added, forming transitive verbs, to nouns (befriend), adjectives (belittle), and other verbs (bespeak) and it can help turn nouns into participial adjectives (witch → bewitched; suit → besuited).
Prefixing a word with be- often lends the sense ‘about, around, all over’ or ‘completely’. It can also intensify it, as in the line ‘Snails, much despised, bekicked, and becrushed’ in George Kearley’s natural history book Links in the Chain (1863). Or it can suggest affecting or afflicting something greatly, as in bestench (1568) ‘to afflict with stench’.
The prefix was common in Old English, appearing in words like befealdan ‘fold round’ and behātan ‘promise’ (examples are from Burchfield’s The English Language) and becoming part of prepositions like before, behind, below, beneath, and beyond. In Middle English be- continued to spread, being added also to imports from French and other Romance languages: becalm, beguile, belabour, besiege.
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June 22, 2017
Catching up on my column for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I have three recent posts to share.
Golly, matey – vocabulary change is massively awesome looks at how the words we use reflect our shifting habits and preoccupations:
To look more broadly at these ripples in the collective lexicon, we can turn to big data in the form of language corpora. One of these, the Spoken British National Corpus, allows many kinds of linguistic research, such as studying how English vocabulary and regional dialects are shifting. The project was in the news recently with a story about ‘words we no longer use’. The headline exaggerates, but there are indeed words we use much less – or much more – than we did twenty years ago. The corpus data can illustrate how our lives have changed over the years.
TL;DR: Abbreviations FTW is an overview of the different types of abbreviations and the different ways we style and use them:
Efficiency is intrinsic to communication, and can drive language change. Set phrases that are used repeatedly are commonly abbreviated, as they save people time and effort. In digital communication, abbreviations may also serve as tribal markers – tfw users are in the know about internet lingo. Ikr. Sometimes, as in the case of lol, abbreviations may even undergo grammatical transformation.
Cucks, cuckolds, cuckqueans and cuckoos briefly explores the origins and applications of this nest of interconnected words:
Quean is a notable word in its own right. It comes from Old English cwene, meaning ‘woman’, from Proto-Indo-European *gwen-, which is also the root of queen, misogyny, and gynaecology. In English, cwene was originally a neutral word; but like many terms of female reference, it gradually took on negative senses and connotations, coming to mean ‘impudent woman’, ‘hussy’, and ‘prostitute’. In Scots it has retained its original neutral sense.
Each post is bite-sized, readable in 2–3 minutes. For more, you can browse the full archive.
May 30, 2017
I write a column on language for rare-books journal The Time Traveller, in which Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary have a recurring role. The first article looked at the semantically spectacular history of nice; the second, posted below, is on the etymology of curmudgeon and an infamous lexicographic flub.
A Notorious ‘Curmudgeon’
In issue 1 of The Time Traveller I described the radical changes the word nice has undergone, and how this prompted resistance and criticism. Because linguistic change is inevitable, constant, and disorienting, language usage attracts its fair share of curmudgeons. It’s a marvellous word, curmudgeon: the kind that Dickens might have made into an affectionately mocking surname. Yet despite its familiarity and popularity, it hides a mystery and a certain notoriety.
We begin, as before, with Samuel Johnson, critic, occasional curmudgeon, and lexicographer extraordinaire. In his Dictionary he defined curmudgeon as ‘an avaricious churlish fellow; a miser; a niggard; a churl; a griper’. Several things stand out about this sequence.
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April 5, 2017
Everyone who uses language has their crutch words. These personal clichés fill a gap in common contexts, giving us a break from the burden of originality. Many are adjectives: academics have noteworthy, campus kids have awesome, and I have nice.
Almost anything positive could invite it: nice tune, nice scarf, nice work, nice idea. I also use nice in its narrower sense meaning subtle, fine-grained: a nice distinction. Both senses are familiar to modern ears. Go back a few centuries, though, and the word becomes a chameleonic stranger.
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January 31, 2017
At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about a prefix going independent and a slew of new insults.
Familiar as a prefix of negation, dis- can also tell us less obvious things about some of the words it modifies, as I explore in Don’t dis this prefix:
Dis- can shed light on a word’s history or etymology. You probably know the verb enthral in the sense captivate: to ‘make you so interested in or excited by something that you give it all your attention’. Adding the dis- prefix produces the rare word disenthral, a recent addition to our Open Dictionary. Disenthral means release – not from captivation but from captivity; it means ‘set free, liberate’. This is because enthral originally meant ‘hold in thrall’ quite literally – to enslave or hold captive – and disenthral contains and negates that earlier sense.
The post goes on to discuss how dis- broke free of its bound status to become the standalone verb dis or diss, meaning ‘disrespect’.
Pearl clutchers, snowflakes, elites and SJWs examines some insults currently in vogue in political debates and online arguments. It begins with elite:
Though the word’s traditional meaning and connotations are positive – elite sportsperson, elite team of astronauts – nowadays it’s often used pejoratively, much as the derived words elitist and elitism usually are. Discussing elite as her word of the week, Nancy Friedman noted that while it is ‘ubiquitous and positive’ in branding, in political discourse it has ‘become a term of opprobrium’. Macmillan Dictionary’s entry presents the difference neatly.
You can read the whole thing for more on these weaponized words, and catch up on older posts in my Macmillan Dictionary archive.
December 8, 2016
Before the year runs away from me – it’s about to sprint out of sight – I want to catch up here on the links I’ve been gathering (and in some cases tweeting) over the last few weeks. It’s the usual mix of articles, posts, podcasts, and pictures, all of a linguistic theme. Click at will.
‘This is not your language.’
The etymology of slang – finally.
The art of editing (podcast, 39 min.).
The race to save Hawaii Sign Language.
What whistled speech tells us about the brain.
People with no language (hat tip to John Cowan).
Mr Slang – of GDoS fame – now has a podcast.
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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.