A morsel of logic

September 21, 2015

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about etymology and Lewis Carroll.

Etymology bites back traces the connections between the words morsel, remorse, and mordant – all of which carry the sense of biting, to a more or less explicit degree:

[The] common word remorse, as you may now guess, literally means to bite back, from re- added to our Latin friend mordere. We might not be accustomed to thinking of remorse as a metaphor, but in a broad sense it is – like depend it tucks a physical idea into an abstract one. Remorse is the feeling of our conscience gnawing at us. There was also once a verb remord, meaning ‘feel remorse’, ‘afflict with remorse’, etc., but it is archaic and hasn’t been in popular use for centuries.

* * *

Language, logic, and Lewis Carroll begins a series of monthly posts celebrating the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865. It looks at the relative importance of logic in different types of English, and at the uses to which authors may put this variation:

Grammatical agreement is observed much more strictly in standard and formal varieties of English than in casual speech or non-standard dialects. Authors may exploit this to convey certain facts about a character or sociolinguistic context. . . .

Lewis Carroll did this too. In his short story ‘Eligible Apartments’ he uses non-standard dialogue liberally: ‘Here you has them on the premises’ (instead of have), ‘So we grows them ourselves’ (instead of grow), and ‘It do scratch, but not without you pulls its whiskers’ (do instead of does; pulls instead of pull).

Comments are welcome, and older articles can be seen in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive

Kibitzing chess players and editors

April 18, 2015

After a binge of Ed McBain books a few months ago – they often touch on linguistic topics – this week I picked another of his 87th Precinct series off the unread shelf: Let’s Hear It for the Deaf Man (1973). It uses a form of the Yiddish word kibitz twice in short succession:

In the April sunshine four fat men sit at a chess table in the park across the street from the university. All four of the men are wearing dark cardigan sweaters. Two of the men are playing chess, and two of them are kibitzing, but the game has been going on for so many Sundays now that it seems almost as though they are playing four-handed, the players and the kibitzers indistinguishable one from the other.

Kibitz is a handy word that means to watch someone do something (normally a game, often cards) and offer unwelcome advice. It can also simply mean to chat or joke around. The word entered English almost a century ago via multiple languages, thieves’ cant, and ornithological onomatopoeia. This delightful etymology is summarised at Etymonline:

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On behalf of my invite

April 17, 2015

On behalf of this fossilised phrase is a recent article I wrote for Macmillan Dictionary Blog about the expression on behalf of:

On someone’s behalf, etymologically speaking, means ‘on someone’s side’, from an old meaning of half. It emerged in Middle English as a result of blending the two phrases on his halve and bihalve him, both of which meant ‘on [or by] his side’; thus Chaucer, ‘Spek thow thiself also to Troylus On my bihalve’. The word in modern use has two related meanings: 1. ‘instead of someone, or as a representative of someone’, and 2. ‘in order to help someone’. Sense 1 is more neutral, while sense 2 implies active support or defence of a person.

The post also looks at in behalf of and lesser known variants, transatlantic differences, the non-standard plural *on their behalves, and a recent development whereby on someone’s behalf is used to mean on someone’s part.


Is ‘invite’ acceptable as a noun? examines a disputed nominalisation, including its use in different registers and the criticism it has received from language authorities:

With another throw of the historical dice, invite as a noun might have developed as the norm, with invitation considered an inkhornish variant. But invitation got there first and established itself as the noun of choice. Flannery O’Connor and William Makepeace Thackeray both used invite as a noun – but in letters. When it appears in edited writing it quite often marks a light or jocular tone. It may even be framed by scare quotes to mark its less-than-wholly-proper stature.

But we can acknowledge all this without lambasting the word as a ‘needless barbarism’, as one critic did. Can we omit needless accusations of barbarity? That’s my invite to the critics.

Older posts may be found in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

Book review: ‘Word Drops’, by Paul Anthony Jones

April 14, 2015

If linguistic trivia is your flavour of the month, there’s a treat in store for you. Speaking of which, did you know the first thing to be described as having a flavour of the month is ice cream? This inconsequential yet pleasing fact is one of many to be found in Word Drops: A Sprinkling of Linguistic Curiosities by Paul Anthony Jones, aka Haggard Hawks.

The publishers of this diverting work, Elliott & Thompson (who kindly sent me a review copy), describe it as addictive – and it is certainly that. Each page contains a handful of intriguing word-related trivia, much of it etymological or semantic. Weird terms, old slang and surprising histories abound. But unlike most trivia books, which are structured thematically, Word Drops is arranged sequentially:

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‘Literal meaning’ is an oxymoron

April 6, 2015

David Bellos’s 2011 book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: The Amazing Adventure of Translation is full of delights and insights not just about the history and phenomenon of translation but about communication, language, and culture more generally.

In a chapter on what Bellos calls the myth of literal translation, he points out that the word literal is sometimes used ‘to say something about the way an expression is supposed to be understood’. This applies to the word literal itself, and thus to the perennial nontroversy over literally which centres on the claim that it should always and only be used ‘literally’. The claim is flawed on several levels.

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Link love: language (60)

November 30, 2014

It’s been almost three months since the last collection of language links: definitely time for another. There are lots, so get comfy and don’t read them all at once.

The Historical Thesaurus of English is now online. Bookmark this one.

A lovely language family tree.

The outstanding Psycho Babble blog winds down.

How to draw syntax trees.

16thC manuscript of very ornamental calligraphy.

Family communication.

Bats jam each other’s sonar.

The improbable muses of 18thC poets.

To Siri, with love. From the mother of an autistic boy.

Ireland’s Book Show meets Clive James.

The rapid evolution of emoji.

Begging the question of acceptability.

Language features that English could do with.

The role of language in the Hong Kong protest movement.

Korean is diverging into two languages.

Get one’s goat is an etymological mystery.

Linguists’ thoughts on vape.

The purposes of language.

An antidote to terrible grammar quizzes.

A comparative library of Beowulf translations.

Search word use and trends in thousands of films and TV shows.

What happens in the brains of simultaneous interpreters.

Why we have so many terms for ‘people of colour.’

Inversion and fronting in English syntax.

Nigga? Please.

The history of the chapter.

In praise of mechanical pencils.

Notes on translation.

US/UK English ‘untranslatables’.

The dangerously dull language of TTIP.

On accent diversity in the UK, and the status of RP.

How prehistory  – the idea and the word – developed.

Swedish Sans, a new national typeface.

The history of football’s rabona.

11 facts about the umlaut.

An interview with Steven Pinker on style.

The art of theatre captioning.

The internet is no barometer of illiteracy.

Words for book around the world.

Chirping, popping, humming, blaring. The sounds fish make.

A linguist decodes restaurant menus.

Affirming the origins of yes.

A brief history of typeface naming.

Language is fundamentally communal.

The languages shaping the world’s economy.

A new database of Saints in Scottish Place-Names.

Language use is gloriously complex, not gloriously simple.

The acronyms that aren’t.

How –isms became -phobias. On the framing of oppression.

A history of women changing their names, or not, in marriage.

What’s wrong with ‘America’s Ugliest Accent’.

The secret life of passwords.

The etymology of allergy and related words.

Research suggests the sleeping brain can understand words.

A brief bibliography of -ass as a colloquial intensifier.

Slang often has old and venerable roots.

How English became the language of science.

A new living dictionary for British Sign Language (BSL).

Finally, a short animated video on language evolution:

Want more? I’ll try not to wait so long till the next batch. In the meantime, you can always browse the language links archive at Sentence first.

Sleeveen language in Ireland

October 1, 2014

In an article in the Irish Independent this week on privatisation fears and political shenanigans, Gene Kerrigan used a great word borrowed (and anglicised) from the Gaelic:

Is it really okay for the Taoiseach [Irish prime minister] to do what he did, then he makes a non-apology and everyone moves on?

Did Enda Kenny lie to us?

You won’t find a straightforward statement in which he said he had nothing to do with the stroke. Instead, he said, “ministers are free to make nominations to particular boards”. Sleeveen language. Deliberately deceptive, while taking pains not to formally lie.

A sleeveen is a sly, smooth-tongued person, a rogue or a trickster. Oxford Dictionaries defines it as “an untrustworthy or cunning person”, Collins says it refers to “a sly obsequious smooth-tongued person”, while Yeats glossed it as a “mean fellow”. You get the idea.

Despite appearances it can be used affectionately, like most Irish insults, but this is obviously not the case above, nor is it normally.

Sleeveen comes from Irish slíbhín “sly person”, to which Dinneen adds slighbhín. The Irish words’ s can be closer to /ʃ/ “sh”, so the spelling shleeveen is also used – as are sleveen, sleiveen, and slieveen. It’s often used in political contexts, and, like smacht, occasionally makes the headlines:

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