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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Elena Ferrante delaying the verb

September 9, 2017

A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it. —Gertrude Stein

Writers are often advised to introduce the main verb of a sentence early. It’s generally good advice. Delaying the verb by prefacing it with subordinate clauses, adjuncts, participle phrases and assorted throat-clearing puts a cognitive load on readers. They must hold it all in their short-term memory until the verb arrives and they find out what frame the extra information fits into.

This is a particular problem in nonfiction prose, where communicating facts is a primary aim. I see it regularly in texts I edit: long lists and unpredictable subclauses pile up before I learn what the sentence is even about. With a little rearrangement the main verb can be brought forward, and the point is made much more direct and comprehensible.

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Real World English: a video series

September 7, 2017

Over the last year or so, Macmillan Dictionary (for whom I write a column on language) published 11 videos and blog posts in a series titled Real World English. I wrote the video scripts, which were then revised by the editors, jazzed up by the graphics team, and presented by Ed Pegg of the London School of English.

Like the dictionary itself, this material is aimed at English-language learners but may be of use or interest to others too. Its focus is on dialect differences in the workplace, mainly UK/US. The entries focus on vocabulary (greetings, education, holidays, etc.) or pragmatics (irony, directness, politeness, etc.). The introductory video gives the gist:

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You can access all 11 videos and blog posts (plus video scripts) on this page, or you can use the playlist above. Each clip is 2–3 minutes long, and the whole series comes in under 30 minutes. Real World English follows the popular Real Grammar and Real Vocabulary series of previous years. I hope you enjoy it.


Linguistic sci-fi in Embassytown

August 29, 2017

The sun still rose, and the shops sold things, and people went to work. It was a slow catastrophe. —China Miéville, Embassytown

Science fiction offers endless scope for linguistic experimentation, and there’s no lack of creativity at a purely lexical level: new terminology abounds in hard SF, weird fiction, and other speculative genres. But I haven’t read many SF novels where language is a central theme, though I’m sure that says more about my underexploration of the genre than it does about SF itself.

Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue and Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 are notable examples. But they are several decades old, and – though I’m probably an exception here – the ideas and storytelling in both books underwhelmed me. So when I read China Miéville’s Embassytown (2011), I felt there was finally a linguistic science-fiction book I could recommend unreservedly, should anyone ask for one.

Embassytown does not admit of simple summary, so I won’t try, but I do want to describe some of its linguistic ideas. There will be spoilers. For proper reviews of the book, read Ursula K. Le Guin in the Guardian and Sam Thompson in the LRB.

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On foot of an Irish idiom

August 14, 2017

In a comment on my post about 12 Irish English usages, Margaret suggested that I write about the Irish expression on foot of. It was a good idea: the phrase is not widely known outside Ireland and is therefore liable to cause confusion, if this exchange is any indication.

On foot of means ‘because of’, ‘as a result of’, or ‘on the basis of’. T.P. Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English offers the example sentences ‘On foot of this, we can’t go any further with this deal’ and ‘On foot of the charges, he had to appear in the court’.

These lines suggest it’s a formal phrase, and that’s invariably how I see it used; I’ve yet to hear it in everyday conversation. A search on Google News shows that it’s common in crime reporting in Ireland. I also see it in academic and business prose, an impression confirmed by the example sentences in Oxford Dictionaries, e.g.:

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Language change and the politics of accents

August 12, 2017

These are the topics of my latest posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. In Words in constant motion, I write that every aspect of language use is subject to change, that this understandably unsettles some people, but that we can learn to live with it:

We may refuse to accept a new usage, especially if the change happens in our lifetime: Why can’t words stay as they are, with a fixed meaning and sound and use? Words here can be a substitute for deeper concerns. We tend to prefer when things are stable, and find instability disturbing.

The converse also applies. If we get on board with the fact that everything is in flux, it becomes easier to adjust to linguistic change instead of being automatically upset by it. It can be seen as a form of realism.

In The politics of accents, I examine a recent case of linguistic prejudice against a British politician that centred on her regional accent, and consider what motivates such a reaction:

Accents, like other aspects of language use, are sometimes a cynical excuse to judge other people – because they come from a particular area, are in a certain social class, or were educated to whatever level or not. Thus language becomes a tool for stereotypes, prejudice, tribal hostility, and often misogynistic abuse.

These attitudes reflect power differences in society. Nonstandard dialects are often wrongly associated with lack of intelligence, criminality, and other negative attributes. They’re even censured in schools because they are considered inferior.

One of Macmillan Dictionary’s busiest and most interesting features is its Open Dictionary, which relies on reader submissions of words and phrases previously absent from the dictionary. These entries, of course, are vetted and edited by lexicographers before being accepted (which many are not). Liz Potter wrote a helpful post on it last month: What’s the point of the Open Dictionary?

My full archive of posts for Macmillan is available here.


Euphemisms for the stomach

July 31, 2017

Sometimes we use language to talk about something without referring to it directly – for fear of flouting social or moral convention, for fear of the thing itself, to conceal and deceive, and so on. In everyday discourse much of this falls under politeness and pragmatics: certain domains are taboo to whatever degree, so we employ euphemisms to avoid crossing a line of what is considered appropriate in the context.

Book cover of 'Loving and Giving' by Molly Keane, publisher AbacusThe last time I wrote about euphemisms on Sentence first, it was to share commentary in Molly Keane’s novel Good Behaviour on the many ways to refer to the toilet without mentioning the toilet or even the bathroom.

In Loving and Giving, another bittersweet comic gem by Keane, the area of taboo avoidance is the middle anatomy. The novel follows an Irish girl, Nicandra (named by her father after a beloved horse), who is eight years old when we first meet her. Her Aunt Tossie lives in the big house with them, and Nicandra goes to her room one morning:

Her nightdress was nothing like as pretty as Maman’s, no lace, only broderie anglaise the same as edged Nicandra’s drawers (“knickers” was a common word, not to be used. For the same reason, if you had a pain it was in “your little inside”, not in your stomach – and there were no words beyond “down there” to describe any itch or ailment in the lower parts of your body).

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