January 3, 2015
Idries Shah’s 1964 book The Sufis, which I read over the holidays, has several interesting passages on language, a couple of which I quote below. The first excerpt concerns the history and use of the protean word Sufism and some of the various terms used to refer to Sufis:
Exactly how old is the word “Sufism”? There were Sufis at all times and in all countries, says the tradition. Sufis existed as such and under this name before Islam. But, if there was a name for the practitioner, there was no name for the practice. The English word “Sufism” is anglicized from the Latin, Sufismus; it was a Teutonic scholar who, as recently as 1821, coined the Latinization which is now almost naturalized into English. Before him there was the word tasawwuf – the state, practice or condition of being a Sufi. This may not seem an important point, but to the Sufis it is. It is one reason why there is no static term in use among Sufis for their cult. They call it a science, an art, a knowledge, a Way, a tribe – even by a tenth-century portmanteau term, perhaps translatable as psychoanthropology (nafsaniyyatalinsaniyyat) – but they do not call it Sufism.
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August 13, 2014
The Red Words Game from Macmillan Dictionary is a new and addictive bit of fun that tests your awareness of word frequencies. It’s named after a feature of the dictionary, the so-called red words and stars.
The idea is that the core vocabulary of English has 7500 ‘red words’, comprising 90% of the language in Macmillan’s huge general corpus.¹ Macmillan Dictionary gives red words special treatment, describing their grammar, collocations, register, and so on. Three-star words are the 2500 most common, two-star words are next, then one-star words.
To play the game you guess how many stars a random series of words have, for 90 seconds. I’ve been scoring 225–300, but to get more than 300 I’d need more luck and free time than I have at the moment. It’s just maddening enough to make you feel hard done by and want another go, like when I had 250 points with 30 seconds to go and got every answer wrong after that.
There are bonus points for fast answers, so don’t dally. The tricky bit is not letting the answers distract you (implication has three stars, anonymous just one!?).² Watch out too for grammatical class, which appears under the word, as sometimes it will affect your answer. For example, the verb find has three stars but the noun has just one.
If you want to pass a few entertaining minutes, go play. It’s even subliminally educational.
¹ Link and description updated for accuracy.
² I suspect anonymous will gain a star or two when more recent data are included in the categorisation.
March 19, 2014
Chambers Slang Dictionary by Jonathon Green is my usual first stop for slang queries and browsing, because it’s the biggest such book on my shelf – size matters in lexicography – and also the best. A quote on the spine says, “Dr. Johnson would have moaned with delight”, and while I could live without the thought of Samuel Johnson making pleasure-noises on my shelf, the sentiment holds.
2010 saw publication of the eponymous Green’s Dictionary of Slang, a three-volume behemoth based like the OED on historical principles, giving slang the deep scholarship it deserves – and more than it has ever received before. Green has since updated thousands of its entries in his database, but since GDoS might not see a revised print edition, I only hope it goes online. [Edit: it has done, for subscribers.]
Green’s life and work are the twin topics of his new book Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer, kindly sent to me for review by Jonathan Cape in London. It aims “both to demystify ‘the dictionary’ and to give some glory to slang, one of language’s most disdained of subsets.” These modest aims it achieves, and then some: this is a belter of a book.*
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March 14, 2014
Unlocking the English Language by Robert Burchfield (Faber & Faber, 1989) had been sitting unread on my shelf for far too long, so I let it jump the queue and am very glad that I did. For readers interested in lexicography and word lore it’s a goldmine, with fascinating facts, anecdotes and esoterica on every page.
Burchfield was a New Zealand-born philologist who spent much of his life working as a lexicographer in England. From 1957–86 he edited the new four-volume Supplement to the OED, and later wrote an admirable third edition of Fowler, among other works. He championed inclusivity when it came to taboo words and global varieties of English.
Like his earlier book The English Language, Unlocking…, though short, is a rich and expansive work. The first four chapters are based on his T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, the next eight a variety of essays on grammar, vocabulary, and dictionary-making. He assesses grammars as recent as CGEL and as old as Ben Jonson’s; his comments on the latter show his forthrightness and penchant for metaphor:
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September 13, 2013
At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about digital dictionaries and everyday etymologies.
The dictionary recently underwent a major update. News media tend to cover this by focusing on new words, either through force of habit, to drum up controversy, or because they think it’s the best way to interest people in a story about lexicography. So I wanted to look not at shiny new entries but at changes to existing ones.
Updating … A new version of your dictionary is now available takes technology as its theme:
Digital culture grows and mutates at a fierce pace, and a modern reference needs to reflect this in its definitions and example sentences.
Sometimes the alterations are subtle but significant. If you look up camera, for instance, sense 1 says it may be “part of a mobile device”. Several years ago this would not have been so, and several years before that it wouldn’t even have made sense. Macmillan Dictionary now also specifies analogue camera, one that “uses film rather than electronic signals”, where once that would have been implicit.
I also discuss updates to words like calendar, curate, tap, and gesture.
The mutable route of ‘commute’ sketches the curiously winding history of this familiar Americanism,* and how divorced it has become – for some of us at least – from its origins as a verb meaning “exchange” or “interchange” (cf. mutation, transmute), and later “make less severe” (a sense still current in law):
The “exchange” sense of commute allowed it to be used in various ways relating to financial transaction, including the act of combining several payments into one. So when people began buying season tickets for trains and streetcars in 19th century US, they called them commutation tickets. From here it was a short stop to commuter – at first “one who holds a commutation ticket” – and to commute, referring to this mode of regular travel to and from work.
Only after developments in mass transportation systems, then, did the familiar sense of commute arise to fill a lexical niche.
You can read the rest here, or visit the archive for my older posts.
* Though it’s perhaps less familiar as an Americanism.
January 23, 2013
A quick follow-up on a tweet – or should I say tvuít – from yesterday: Foclóir, a new English–Irish dictionary, has just gone online. It looks great; alongside its translations it offers detailed grammatical data, example sentences, and sound files from native Irish speakers.
The sound files are a particular treat, offered in the three major dialects of Connacht, Munster and Ulster Irish. Vocabulary-wise, although the dictionary is far from complete, there’s already more than enough to reward repeat visits:
The dictionary is being published on a phased basis, and the full content won’t be online until end-2014. The entries published in January 2013 consist of approximately 30% of the eventual content, however this range covers approximately 80% of general English usage.
Foclóir was created by Foras na Gaeilge and is based on the Dante lexical database. Preparation of a print edition will begin in 2015, once all the dictionary material has been published online. I’m making it my primary internet reference for English–Irish translation.
[via RTÉ News]
October 25, 2012
I have a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Links and excerpts now follow.
Dictionary signals vs. noise looks at the business of crowd-sourcing in dictionary-making. (Crowd-sourcing means outsourcing a task to the general public or another unspecified group.) Some recent discussion about this might give the impression that the field of lexicography is destined for an Urban Dictionary–style makeover. This won’t happen.
It seems to me more a matter of dictionaries finding different ways to integrate public input, and this is something they’ve always done to varying degrees.
Urban Dictionary is an extreme case in that its entries are entirely user-generated; it is therefore best consulted with a certain scepticism. This is not to say UD is unhelpful: it’s sometimes the best or even the only place to find a plausible explanation for contemporary slang, especially the more faddish or explicit sort. But unless several definitions converge on a sense, a pinch of salt or a confirming source tends to be necessary.
For more of my thoughts on Urban Dictionary, and why professionally curated dictionaries are in no danger of displacement, you can read the rest here.
Lesser spotted portmanteau words briefly introduces the history and structure of portmanteau words, aka blends, before coining a few fanciful examples (which turned out to be unoriginal, but anyway):
Blending is a common source of new words because it’s fun – a kind of language play – and relatively straightforward. So when people neologise, whether whimsically or with more serious intent, they often coin portmanteau words. It’s an easy way to combine two ideas: just think of a word and blend it with another. From dictionary, for example, we might conjure a contradictionary: a dictionary of paradoxes; and a benedictionary: a dictionary of blessings.
Many such coinages are destined to be short-lived or remain limited to certain sublanguages. Others, as we’ve seen, eventually enter our everyday vocabulary.
The post was prompted by a unusual sense of portmanteau word which I encountered in an old book on Beethoven. You can find out about that – and ponder whether banoffee pie has peaked – at the original post.
Comments here or there are welcome, and if you’re new to this and inclined to read more, there’s always my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.