Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction

September 21, 2021

Anyone who’s into both word lore and science fiction will have a fine time exploring the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction. Call it cyberspacefaring.* Launched in early 2021, the HD/SF was once an official project of the OED but is now run independently by lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower. A work in progress, it aims to:

illustrate the core vocabulary of science fiction; it also aims to cover several related fields, such as critical terms relating to science fiction (and other genres of imaginative fiction such as fantasy and horror), and the vocabulary of science-fiction fandom.

Definitions are ‘comprehensive but brief’ and are supplemented by ample literary quotations, aka citations. These, ‘the most important part of this dictionary’, show each word or phrase in use, from the earliest detected case to more recent examples. Some entries also have etymologies, usage labels, historical notes, and so on.

Logo of the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction, with the title in a classic vintage sf typeface (which I haven't identified)

This beautiful retrofuturist typeface is Sagittarius by Hoefler&Co.
see the link for an account of its inspiration and development.

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Spey the planets

April 22, 2021

In a recent post I noted an Irish sense of the word gentle meaning ‘enchanted or visited by fairies’, used in Charles McGlinchey’s book The Last of the Name. That book also features the unusual word spey:

I think it would be a descendant of these Dohertys of Keenagh who was a great harp player, the best in Ireland. One Christmas market he was going to the fair of Carn, but his stepmother, who could spey [foresee] and read the planets, advised him not to go for there was blood over his head. When he insisted on going, she killed a rooster and sprinkled the blood over him.

On his way to Carn, a fight broke out between Catholics and Protestants; Doherty stabbed a man and had to leave the country. His stepmother’s spey proved accurate. Though glossed in the original as ‘foresee’, the verb spey is closer to ‘foretell’: more clairvoyance than prediction.

Also spelled spae (which is how most dictionaries list it, if they do), or spay, the word entered English from Old Norse spá around the 14th century and throughout its history has been in mainly Scottish use. I’m not sure of the connection, if there is one, to spy, which comes from the Indo-European root spek- ‘observe’.

The Dictionary of the Scots Language shows how spae may be used intransitively (‘spae nae mair about uncannie things’) and transitively (‘spaeing folk’s fortunes’). Robert Burns used it thus in ‘Halloween’:

Ye little skelpie limmer’s face!
How daur you try sic sportin’,
As seek the foul Thief ony place,
For him to spae your fortune!

The verb gave rise to a noun, spae ‘prediction, prophecy, omen’, which is in much rarer use. The OED cites Sabine Baring-Gould’s Iceland: its scenes and sagas (1863): ‘The Finns’ spae is come true, so here we shall settle.’


Gently enchanted

April 10, 2021

The Last of the Name by Charles McGlinchey (1861–1954) is an account of life in rural Ireland generations ago: customs, beliefs, practicalities, peculiarities. Published in 1986 with Brian Friel as editor, it is acclaimed as a ‘minor classic’ by Seamus Heaney. It’s also linguistically rich; in this and the next post I’ll note two words that caught my eye.

Cover of 'The Last of the Name' published by Blackstaff Press, 1986. The cover is cream-coloured and dominated by a black and white illustration, almost like a woodcut, of an old woman wearing a shawl and standing in a dark hilly landscape. The book title is in all caps and red typeface above the picture. Below the picture is the author's name in black, followed by the text: 'with an introduction by Brian Friel'First up is gentle, in a supernatural sense not widely known or used. Here’s McGlinchey:

I always heard you should never strike a cow with a holly stick. Holly and hazel are two trees that are gentle [enchanted]. The people used to have a rhyme ‘Holly and hazel went to the wood, holly took hazel home by the lug.’ That meant that holly was the master of the hazel.

[Lug means ‘ear’. The parenthetical gloss for gentle is Friel’s.]

Holly and hazel recur in folk belief and have been credited with protective powers since ancient times. Niall Mac Coitir, in his book Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore, writes that in Ireland holly is a crann uasal, a ‘gentle’ or ‘noble’ tree, and that ‘you annoy the fairies when you misuse it, for example by sweeping the chimney with it’.

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Awkness: an old word made new again

January 28, 2021

In a recent conversation, I heard the word awkness in reference to a socially awkward situation. I hadn’t heard it before, but its meaning was obvious in context. After all, its cousin awks ‘awkward’ has been around a while; I’ve even used it myself.

When I looked into awkness, I had a surprise. It sounds, as I said on Twitter, like a millennial coinage – and it is, more or less. But not originally: the OED dates awkness to the late 16th century, defining it thesaurusily as ‘wrongness, irrationality, perversity, untowardness, awkwardness, ineptitude’.

The first citation is from a 1587 religious book by Philippe de Mornay (tr. Philip Sidney & Arthur Golding): ‘The skilfull can work much upon little, and by his cunning ouercome the awknesse of his stuffe.’ The citations continue till 1674, with the word also spelled awknesse, awknes, and aukness.

And then: obsolescence.

Well, not exactly.

OED entry for 'awkness'. Etymology: < 'awk' adj. + '-ness' suffix. Obsolete. Definition: 'Wrongness, irrationality, perversity, untowardness, awkwardness, ineptitude.' Citations: 1587: Sir P. Sidney & A. Golding tr. P. de Mornay, 'Trewnesse Christian Relig'. xxxii. 595 'The skilfull [man] can..by his cunning ouercome the awknesse of his stuffe.' 1615: S. Hieron 'Dignitie of Preaching' in 'Wks.' (1620) I. 602 'A reprobate awknes to all good.' 1658: W. Gurnall, 'Christian in Armour: 2nd Pt.' 448: 'So much awknesse and unwillingnesse to come to Gods foot.' 1668: W. Spurstowe, Spiritual Chymist Pref.' 5: 'Awkness to this beneficial employment.' 1674: N. Fairfax. 'Treat. Bulk & Selvedge' 171: 'By shewing the aukness or great absurdity on the other side.' Read the rest of this entry »


Peeking, peeving, and grubbing around

October 6, 2020

I have three new posts up at my column for Macmillan Dictionary Blog:

Grubbing around for etymology digs into the origins and development of grub:

The noun grub has two common senses, but the connection between them is not widely known. It’s used informally to mean ‘food’, and it can also refer to ‘a young insect without wings or legs, like a small worm’ – in other words, a larva. The two grubs are related, etymologically, but not in the way you may be imagining – depending on your diet.

Piqued by peek and peak sorts out these often-confused homophones, offering mnemonics for each:

To peak (v.) means to reach the highest amount, level, or standard. Phrases that use peak include off-peak, peak oil, and peak time. This meaning explains why people sometimes write the eggcorn peak one’s interest instead of pique one’s interest – they may picture that interest peaking. To remember when to use the spelling peak, think of how the capital letter A is like a mountain. Picture the spelling as peAk, if that helps.

Policing grammar on the radio looks at an example of usage-peeving, wherein a journalist who spoke on Irish radio was criticised by one listener for her grammar:

According to Muphry’s Law (yes, that’s how it’s spelt), any complaint about grammar or usage will itself contain an error. Sure enough, the pedant misspells Moore’s name, and his punctuation is a mess. More importantly, he fails to understand that the rules of formal written English are not universal. Different norms apply when you’re having a conversation, for example, and speaking in your own dialect. So those ‘rules’ don’t even apply in most situations.

Landscape photo, with a mountain range in the background and one prominent peak near the centre. Blue sky and wispy clouds. Below the mountains, a swathe of trees, and in the foreground some light-brown sand and tufts of grass - the photo was taken from near ground level.

Grubbing around in the sand in County Mayo,
the Croagh Patrick peak in the background

Dialect, dinkum, and dude

July 19, 2020

Those are the latest three topics I’ve covered in my language column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Being bidialectal explores how our accents and dialects can change with circumstances, with some keen observations on dialect loss by Zadie Smith. Multidialectalism often starts at school:

Through formal education, many of us learn a standard or prestige variety of a language for use in public or formal contexts. Shifting from one variety to another – going from a work meeting to an informal chat, for example – is known as code-switching.

The fact that different dialects are appropriate in different spheres of life means that people generally become bidialectal or multidialectal. Though these adjectives may be unfamiliar, it’s the same idea as bilingual and multilingual, but with different dialects of the same language.

Dude, where’s my etymology? is the inevitable title for an outline of the curious history of dude. The word’s ultimate origin was a mystery for decades:

Dude started off as a word similar to dandy, referring mockingly to ‘a man who cares a lot about his appearance and always wears fashionable clothes’. An early citation in the OED refers to ‘highly perfumed town dudes wearing creased pants’. This led to the phrasal verb dude up, meaning to dress up or accessorize fashionably: a 1958 New Statesman article referred to ‘country cousins duding up to impress less snappy dressers back home’. From this emerged sense 1a, ‘a man from a city in the eastern U.S. or Canada who goes on vacation to a western ranch’, which is connected to the phrase dude ranch.

The dinkum oil on ‘fair dinkum’ looks at the range of uses and senses of a famously Antipodean word whose etymology has invited some creative speculation:

The dinkum oil [true facts] about dinkum is that it probably originates in English dialect. Joseph Wright, in his pioneering English Dialect Dictionary, reports the word’s use in Derbyshire and Lincolnshire in the late 19th century to mean ‘work’ or ‘a due share of work’. He also cites an early Australian example, in the novel Robbery Under Arms: ‘It took us an hour’s hard dinkum to get near the peak.’ According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word may come from Middle English ding, ‘to work’.


The OED Text Visualizer

June 27, 2020

The OED Text Visualizer is an amazing new research tool from OED Labs based on a powerful data engine that automatically annotates text. The Visualizer displays etymological information in an attractive visual format that can ‘open up new areas of questioning and means of discovery’.

It works like this: Paste up to 500 words into the box on this page, add the text’s date, click the button, and you get an instant display of word origins, helpfully colour-coordinated, along a 1,000-year timeline.

Here’s what I got with the first eight paragraphs of my post on the word culchie:

[click to embiggen]

Screengrab of the OED Text Visualizer. It shows a rectangular display with colour-coded bubbles of various sizes scattered along a timescale from before the year 1000 up to 2000 on the x-axis. Along the top are the colour codes: English, in blue (97), Germanic, in dark green (82), Romance, in red (66), Latin, in purple (23), other, in yellow (6), and Celtic, in orange (1).

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