The latest in an erratic series. In this set we have punctuation, phonetics, raciolinguistics, gesture, lexicography, and writing advice. Viewing length ranges from 4 minutes to 1 hour 18 minutes.
A brief history of the exclamation mark!
At Strong Language, the sweary blog about swearing, I have a new post up about the idiom swear like a [X]. After seeing the phrase swear like a trooper (maybe in Beryl Bainbridge’s A Quiet Life), I got to wondering how it arose; a few hours later I had found more [X]s than I’d ever imagined existed.
Some are common, others less so but familiar, and there are many, many obscure variants, plays on the clichés, and predictable/peculiar one-offs. And that’s before we even look at equivalent expressions in other languages, which is where the starling in the post title comes in (Czech, as it happens).
After looking at why trooper and sailor are the usual objects, I dug into the corpus data, which produced some graphs and lists of fun phrases: swearing like a sailor’s parrot, a drunken bushwhacker, a surly barmaid, and a foul-mouthed trooper stubbing their toe on a slang dictionary, for example.
Language change is something I watch closely, both as a copy-editor and as someone broadly interested in how we communicate. I read usage dictionaries for fun; I also read a lot of fiction, and sometimes, as a treat, it throws up explicit commentary on shifts or variation in usage.*
This happened most recently in Consumed (Scribner, 2014) by David Cronenberg (whose thoughts on language invention I covered earlier this year). Nathan, a young photojournalist, is visiting Roiphe, an elderly doctor, who calls Nathan ‘son’ just before the passage below, emphasizing the generational gap. They’re sitting in Roiphe’s kitchen:
“Want some ice water? Maybe coffee? Anything?”
“No, thanks. I’m good.”
“ ‘I’m good’ is funny. Sounds funny to me. We never used to say that. We’d say ‘I’m fine. I’m all right.’ But they do say ‘I’m good’ these days. So what are we looking at here?”
On a recent rewatch of the 1979 film The Warriors, I noticed an unusual pronoun spoken by Cleon, played by Dorsey Wright:*
Ourself, once in regular use, is now scarce outside of certain dialects, and many (maybe most) people would question its validity. I’ve seen it followed by a cautious editorial [sic] even in linguistic contexts. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), describing it as the reflexive form of singular we – ‘an honorific pronoun used by monarchs, popes, and the like’ – says it is ‘hardly current’ in present-day English.
But that’s not the whole story, and it belies the word’s surprising versatility and stubborn survival outside of mainstream Englishes, which this post will outline. There are graphs and data further down, but let’s start with usage.
Early in the pandemic, I used Zoom and other video-chat platforms like never before. For me it was mostly social, not work-related: a way to see and stay in touch with family and friends when I wasn’t meeting them in person. I soon noticed ways the technology compromised communication.
Take back-channelling. This is when we say things like mm, yeah, and whoa to convey, minimally, that we’re listening, that we agree, that the speaker should continue their conversational turn, and so on. Back-channelling didn’t work well in some apps, because the timing was slightly out of sync or because the sounds briefly dominated the audio, interfering with the speaker instead of supporting them.
Such problems are not new, but they are newly prevalent. How to tackle them depends on the context: the technology, the conversation type, the people involved, and so on. One thing I did was reduce my back-channelling noises; in their place I nodded more often and more visibly and used more facial expressions.
I also made visual reaction cards based on popular emoji: