Variant usages are plenty

March 22, 2018

My monthly language column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues this year, and I haven’t reported on it since November. So here are the latest four items I’ve written there, with excerpts to give you a flavour:

1. Macmillan’s thesaurus is a bit different, unusual, special, and unique: This post showcases unique features of the site’s thesaurus:

Some words, like software, don’t have many synonyms, but there are many types of software. If you look it up in Macmillan’s thesaurus you’ll find a list of examples of software, like CMS and patch. … These lists of related words help English language learners. Under suffix you’ll see a list of suffixes and their meanings, so anyone still learning English morphology can see at a glance what various suffixes mean and how they are used, such as –able, –ese, –ify, –proof, and –ward. Related words can also be useful for fiction writers seeking authentic detail on an area they’re not versed in. For everyone else, they’re interesting to browse.

2. Disagreements are plenty: What can dictionary entries tell us about linguistic attitudes? I examine Samuel Johnson’s reaction to a certain use of plenty:

‘It is used, I think barbarously, for plentiful.’ The usage is supported with two citations, one of them from Shakespeare’s Henry IV: ‘If reasons were as plenty as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion.’ ‘I think barbarously’ is an interesting aside. It shows how personal feelings can override impartiality. Johnson held Shakespeare in great esteem, but even with Johnson’s command of poetry and his knowledge of Shakespeare’s linguistic genius and innovation, he cannot accept the playwright’s use of plenty to mean ‘plentiful’. In his view, it is ‘barbarous’. But […] the phrase ‘I think’ is a telling concession.

3. Loath(e) to get it wrong: Even native English speakers are often unsure of the difference between loath and loathe. Does it matter? I take a look:

Pronunciation helps to distinguish the two words, at least in most cases. In their Macmillan Dictionary entries, audio files and IPA tell us that loath is pronounced /ləʊθ/ (UK) or /loʊθ/ (US), to rhyme with ‘both’, and loathe is pronounced /ləʊð/ (UK) or /loʊð/ (US), to rhyme with ‘clothe’. This follows a phonological pattern in English, where words ending in –the take a voiced syllable: breathe, soothe, lithe, bathe, and so on, while those ending in –th are usually unvoiced. The reality is a bit messier.

4. Would you like an espresso – or an expresso? I review the status of a much-used, and much-loathed, variant pronunciation:

A half-full (or half-empty) cup of espresso on a saucer with a spoonAnother reason for the popularity of expresso is that it looks and sounds more like an English word than espresso does – albeit an imported one, with that ‘o’ at the end. Aside from esprit, another Romance-language borrowing, espresso is the only word in common use in English that begins with espr-, whereas expr- is very familiar from words like express and expression. So people unconcerned with etymology are unlikely to notice anything wrong with expresso. … Usage purists are not happy about expresso being in common use. To them, it’s wrong, end of story, and anyone who uses the word is making a careless linguistic error and a social faux pas.

Thanks, as always, for reading. Comments are welcome at either location.

[Photo © Nevit Dilmen licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported]
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Hyphenating my little ass-car

January 16, 2018

There’s an xkcd cartoon popular among copy-editors because it combines fussiness over hyphens with gently risqué humour:

Language Log, meeting language lovers’ most niche desires and then some, has a bibliography of suffixal –ass as an intensive modifier. In this vein, you’d expect the hyphen in little ass car to go between the first two words unless you were being seedy, or xkcdy. But there’s an exception, and it’s not rude at all.

Irish author Pádraic Ó Conaire, in his short story collection Field and Fair (Mercier Press, 1966; tr. Cormac Breathnach), refers several times to his ass-car, by which he means his donkey and cart. One story, about how the author came to befriend the donkey, is titled ‘My Little Black Ass’. It’s hard to read that now and not find alternative meanings rubbing up against the intended one.

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English is not pure or in peril

November 25, 2017

On Twitter yesterday, Bryan Garner shared a quote by Arthur Schlesinger on language usage that I hadn’t come across before; it seems to be from Schlesinger’s 1974 essay ‘Politics and the American Language’:

The purity of language is under unrelenting attack from every side – from professors as well as from politicians … and not least from those indulgent compilers of modern dictionaries who propound the suicidal thesis that all usages are equal and all are correct.

There’s a lot going on there, so I’ll break it down a bit. The elided material after ‘politicians’, by the way, clunkily extends the list of attackers to include newspapermen, advertising men, men of the cloth, and men of the sword.

While we can blame men for many things, this ain’t one of them. Politically Schlesinger may have leant liberal, but linguistically he was reactionary, if that line is any indication. Its points are ignorant and extremist (‘attack’, ‘suicidal’? Come on), and laden with false premises and invidious doom-mongering.

As the Pet Shop Boys sang, I’ve got a different point of view:

To elaborate: If English were not so gloriously impure, so amenable to borrowing willy-nilly from other tongues from the year dot, we may not be speaking it today. If it survived at all, its reach – geographically and expressively – would be more provincial.

This capacity to absorb bits of other languages is a feature, not a bug. Anyone banging on about a language’s ‘purity’, unless it’s a computer language, or a constructed language that has never been used in conversation, needs a history lesson, stat.

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A to Z of English usage myths

October 3, 2017

English usage lore is full of myths and hobgoblins. Some have the status of zombie rules, heeded by millions despite being bogus and illegitimate since forever (split infinitives, preposition-stranding). Other myths attach to particular words and make people unsure how to use them ‘properly’ (decimate, hopefully), leading in some cases to what linguists call ‘nervous cluelessness’ about language use.

These myths spread and survive for various reasons. On one side is the appeal of superiority. On the other is fear of embarrassment: We play it safe rather than risk ridicule and ‘correction’. We are (often to our detriment) a rule-loving species, uncomfortable with uncertainty and variation unless we resolve not to be. We defer to authority but are poor judges of what constitutes good varieties of it.*

So if a self-appointed expert on English asserts a rule, some will lap it up no matter its validity. The unedifying results are laid bare in reference works like the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), which, with rigour and wit, summarises centuries of confusion and argument over whether A or B is correct when often both are or each is appropriate in a different variety of English.

Condescending Wonka meme, with text: 'Oh, you use formal English all the time? How satisfying for you'Huge effort is wasted on such trivialities. So, as a quick exercise in myth-busting (and amusing myself), I posted an A to Z of English usage myths on Twitter last week. Reactions were mostly positive, but some items inevitably proved contentious, as we’ll see.

You can click through on this initial tweet for the full A–Z plus supplements on Twitter, or you can read the lightly edited version below, followed by extra notes and quotes now that the 140-character limit doesn’t apply.

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Bewondered by obsolete be- words

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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‘Cuckquean’, abbreviations, and vocabulary change

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.


The Samuel Johnson notes: A notorious ‘curmudgeon’

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.

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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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