Metaphors, dilemmas, and dictionaries

February 11, 2019

I have three new posts to report from my monthly language column at Macmillan Dictionary.

We’re keen as mustard for condiment words’ explores extended uses of words such as salty, saucy, and vinegar:

Metaphors are part and parcel of English. Language lets us map the world around us, and metaphors are an important way of doing this. We take an image or idea from one domain and apply it in another, extending its use. This often takes the form of a physical idea being expressed in a figurative way.

Food is one such domain. The language of food is rich and varied, and refers to very common and tangible feelings and experiences. So food words lend themselves well to metaphorical use. So well, in fact, that we can take one small section of food – condiments – and find an array of these metaphors in use.

Resolving a usage dilemma’ examines the debate over the meaning of dilemma, whose first use in English, in the 16thC, was rhetorical:

Within decades, dilemma was being used in more general ways. Shakespeare, in All’s Well That Ends Well, has Parolles say: ‘I will presently pen down my dilemmas, encourage myself in my certainty’. From the early sense of a choice between two undesirable options, it came to mean a choice between several such options, then simply a difficult situation or predicament.

This was too much for linguistic conservatives, who felt the word was being unduly weakened.

Finally, ‘How to use (or misuse) a dictionary’ describes some of the many uses for dictionaries beyond simply checking definitions:

Dictionaries offer lots of other information about words and phrases, including their pronunciation, secondary senses, grammatical category, inflections, and use in the language, shown through example sentences.

A dictionary may also provide synonyms, etymology, and information about a word’s frequency in the language. Readers looking for one particular thing may end up browsing an entire page or clicking through to other entries, curious about the many facets of a word and the different relationships it can have with the language. Serendipity abounds.

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Sentences plunging into vacant space; or, Why the full stop is changing

July 21, 2018

I didn’t know the New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones before buying a copy of Mister Pip on spec, persuaded by the back-cover blurbs. The book is a gem, humorous, moving, and understated. It also has an episode of some linguistic interest.

Grace is a black woman from a small village on Bougainville island in Papua New Guinea; Mr Watts is a white man from Australia. They are expecting their first child:

Before Sarah’s birth they had used the spare room as a dumping ground for all the things they had no use for. Now they agreed to start again with it empty. . . . And why pass up the opportunity of a blank wall? Why go in for wallpaper covered with kingfishers and flocks of birds in flight when they could put useful information up on the walls? They agreed to gather their worlds side by side, and leave it to their daughter to pick and choose what she wanted.

And so they begin writing on the walls of the nursery-to-be: family names, place names, scraps of history and philosophy, and lists both ‘fanciful and weird’: things that tell you where home is, broken dreams, advice on how to find your soul.

The narrator, a student of Mr Watts, comments on the writing’s form:

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Linguistic contagion and detox

February 14, 2018

Sludge: the word’s connotations range from unsavoury to downright toxic, radioactive. But we produce a huge amount of it (multiple shit-tons, you might say), and we have to deal with that. And so we resort to code, euphemism, and other linguistic tricks.

Portobello UK cover of Rose George's book "The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste". The design is minimalist, dominated by male and female icons like those used to indicate public toilets‘When sewage is cleaned and treated,’ writes Rose George in The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste, ‘the dirt that is collected and removed is called sludge, except in the US, where it’s called biosolids by some people and poison by others.’ George devotes a chapter of her superb book to the nature of this ‘blandly named product’ and the bitter controversy over its use on land.

The Big Necessity, dubbed a ‘tour de feces’ by Nancy Friedman, lists five options for disposing of sludge: landfill, incineration, gasification (these three are expensive), ocean dumping (illegal), and land application. ‘It was not a difficult choice,’ George writes, and for the fifth option there was precedent:

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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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F.L. Lucas on style: ‘personality clothed in words’

July 19, 2017

Two of my favourite books on writing have the same one-word title: Style. Years ago I shared an essay by the author of the older Style, Frank Laurence Lucas, and having recently revisited his book, I’ll post a few excerpts.

First published in 1955, Lucas’s Style has dated in certain respects (try to ignore the generic male pronouns), but it is still full of sound advice and insights on the art and mechanics of composition. So then: What is style? Lucas describes it as:

a means by which a human being gains contact with others; it is personality clothed in words, character embodied in speech. If handwriting reveals character, style reveals it still more – unless it is so colourless and lifeless as not really to be a style at all. The fundamental thing, therefore, is not technique, useful though that may be; if a writer’s personality repels, it will not avail him to eschew split infinitives, to master the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’, to have Fowler’s Modern English Usage by heart. Soul is more than syntax. If your readers dislike you, they will dislike what you say.

Three chapters are titled ‘Courtesy to Readers’. The first, on clarity, concludes with a note on how to achieve it:

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Metaphors, mountains, and magic

December 6, 2016

This post is a mixum-gatherum of bits from books I’ve read over the last while. First up is an arresting passage from ‘Vertigo’ by Joanna Walsh, in her short story collection of the same name:

At the turn of the road, willing the world to continue a little space, there is a man, a woman, and a child. They are not tourists: there are few here. From the outside, the man is greater than the woman, who is greater than the child. The child is brighter than the woman, who is brighter than the man. Of their insides we know nothing, because we cannot understand the words that turn those insides out. I grasp at words in this language with other languages I know, languages other than the one I mostly speak, as though one foreignness could solve another.

I love the idea of using language as a tool not to communicate directly but to unlock another language, like an inoculation.

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‘Literal meaning’ is an oxymoron

April 6, 2015

David Bellos’s 2011 book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: The Amazing Adventure of Translation is full of delights and insights not just about the history and phenomenon of translation but about communication, language, and culture more generally.

In a chapter on what Bellos calls the myth of literal translation, he points out that the word literal is sometimes used ‘to say something about the way an expression is supposed to be understood’. This applies to the word literal itself, and thus to the perennial nontroversy over literally which centres on the claim that it should always and only be used ‘literally’. The claim is flawed on several levels.

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