Irregular, elementary, and belittling

September 29, 2018

I have three new posts to report from Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column about words and language. Links and excerpts follow.

‘This is highly irregular’ showcases the devilish irregularity of English:

English is a famously irregular language, its grammar laden with exceptions to the rules. This is largely a result of English being a mosaic of different languages. To its originally Germanic structure were added heavy layers of vocabulary from Latin, French, and elsewhere, over centuries of use. This prolonged and complex mixing of influences led to the lack of uniformity we find in English verb patterns today.

Past tense and past participle verb forms are the focus of the post, which includes a brief quiz: Can you solve these, for example? 1. Once again the dog had [lay] its head on her lap. 2. He remembered he had [drink] the cocktail before. The point being, even native English-speakers struggle with some of these verbs.

‘Elementary error, my dear Watson’ looks at a well-known expression whose provenance proves unexpected:

Ask people to put elementary in a sentence, and many will quote a famous catchphrase by Sherlock Holmes, the great detective created by Arthur Conan Doyle: ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ (sometimes without the possessive determiner: ‘Elementary, dear Watson’). The expression, generally used humorously, has taken on a life of its own, with a separate entry in Macmillan Dictionary that says it means something is ‘very easy to understand or solve’. But all is not as it seems.

It turns out that in Conan Doyle’s 56 short stories and four novels starring Holmes, the detective never once says the line, with or without the ‘my’. I dig into the etymology.

‘Don’t belittle this word’: Sometimes a word is hated with a passion, by many people, for many years, and then new generations arrive and think nothing of it:

If you were told that a word had ‘no chance of becoming English’ and should be ‘abandoned to the incurably vulgar’, you would not guess that the word is belittle. It seems so ordinary and uncontroversial nowadays. But those quotes, from Fitzedward Hall in 1872, reflect real historical antagonism to it. ‘For shame, Mr. Jefferson!’ spluttered an article in the London Review, criticizing the Founding Father for coining it.

With all the anxious commentary now reduced to a quaint historical footnote, I review the word’s history and the gradual but ultimately radical shift in people’s attitudes to it.

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Book review: ‘Talk on the Wild Side’ by Lane Greene

September 21, 2018

Language today is partly tame and partly wild, and the two will always be in tension. —Lane Greene, Talk on the Wild Side

It’s funny how many people profess to love the English language yet express this mostly by moaning about how others use it. Turns out they only love one dialect: the formal English they were taught at school. Other varieties receive their scorn and condescension. Everyday developments like dropped sounds or shifts in meaning are taken as signs of imminent linguistic ruin.

To fear that change could so corrupt English that it would slip into terminal decline is to misunderstand what language is and how we use it. No language in recorded history has ever devolved into grunts, but that hasn’t stopped people worrying that English will, if their favourite scapegoat – young people, managers, Americans, northerners, anyone not white and middle-class – carries on ‘mangling’ it the way they do.

If you have concerns about English being degraded, grab yourself a copy of Talk on the Wild Side: The Untameable Nature of Language by Lane Greene, newly published by Profile Books (who kindly sent me a copy). In fact, if you’re at all interested in language change and the remarkable efforts people have made to thwart or control that change, you’ll find much to enjoy in Greene’s book.

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Being bold in Irish English

August 31, 2018

In standard English the primary meaning of the adjective bold is ‘brave, courageous, unafraid, daring’. This can shade into a related, negative sense of impudence, brazenness, or presumption. Another common sense is ‘visibly prominent, distinct, strong, or clear’, often associated with lines or colour. For nuance, compare the definitions by M-W, AHD, Oxford, Macmillan, Cambridge, and Collins.

When I first learned the word, though, it was in none of these senses: it meant ‘naughty, mischievous’. If I heard someone (including myself) described as bold, it meant they were misbehaving – or maybe being playful in a cheeky way. This is a very common usage in Irish English but absent from standard English; there’s no mention of it in the OED.

The sense is so intrinsic to the word in Ireland that when I read this line in Swing Time by Zadie Smith last week, I had to read it twice to be sure of the intent:

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Defuse/diffuse, hanged/hung, and killer emoji

June 27, 2018

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column about language, I’ve been discussing moral panics and tricky pairs of words.

Diffusion of confusion looks at defuse and diffuse and derived terms, all very often confused, and shows how etymology can provide a mnemonic to help you remember which is which:

Defuse is a surprisingly modern verb. It emerged during World War II in reference to removing the fuse from a bomb, literally de-fuse, with the prefix de- carrying the sense ‘remove’, as in de-ice and dethrone. Within a few years it was being used figuratively, where instead of an explosive device it was a situation being defused. The fuse had become metaphorical.

Hang out with ‘hang’ and ‘hung’ examines an English word of high frequency and curious history – the two past tense forms are a result of two Old English verbs and an Old Norse one becoming ‘increasingly entangled before effectively merging’:

Some writing guides insist that hanged and hung be kept neatly separate. But in practice, each spills a bit into the other’s domain. This has long been a feature of English, with authors such as Austen, Shelley, Faulkner, Updike, and Flannery O’Connor using hung where we might expect hanged. It’s less common, but it’s not wrong. Just be aware that if you use hung this way, some people may criticise the choice.

Will emojis ruin English? poses a question whose answer you can probably guess – and if you have concerns about this, I hope I can ease them. In this post I counter recent reports about the dangers to language that emojis supposedly pose:

The idea that standards are slipping taps into various worries about changes in society. Language becomes a scapegoat for these fears. So when a new communication feature or technology becomes popular, as emojis have, it draws negative attention. . . .

Young people, especially young women, are often blamed for linguistic ‘crimes’ because, being less tied to tradition and habit, they use language more innovatively than older people do. They are a source of linguistic novelty, which critics assume is harmful. Sure enough, the Telegraph reported that four out of five people in the survey identified young people as ‘the worst culprits’. We forget that our own youthful innovations appalled the generation before us.

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‘Like’ is an infix now, which is un-like-believably innovative

June 16, 2018

Like has undergone radical developments in modern English. It can function as a hedge (‘I’ll be there in like an hour’), a discourse particle (‘This like serves a pragmatic function’), and a sentence adverb (‘It’s common in Ireland, like’). These and other non-standard usages are frequently criticised, but they’re probably older than critics think.

More recent is the so-called quotative like (‘I’m like, Whoa!’), also often disparaged. This became widely established impressively fast and is leading to some remarkable usages in younger generations: children saying things like ‘What’s Ernie like?’ to mean ‘What’s Ernie saying?’

So some uses of like are emerging right now, spreading through younger speech communities. In episode 278 of Australia’s Talk the Talk podcast, guest Alexandra D’Arcy – a linguistics professor who literally wrote the book on like – says that while she might say ‘at like the same time’, her son can say ‘at the like same time’, which is not in her grammar at all. It’s a subtle but striking difference.

It gets better. The latest novel use to which like is being put is as an infix. Infixes are a pretty small set in English, so a new one is a genuine surprise, linguistically. In some ways it is unlikeprecedented.

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Compulsive pedantry

March 28, 2018

When someone corrects a family member’s use of English, it usually (I imagine) follows the lines of age and authority: a parent correcting a child, say. But the dynamic is sometimes reversed and can be depicted thus in fiction: Michael Connelly, for example, has Harry Bosch’s daughter criticise the detective’s speech.

A more elaborate case plays out in Ali Smith’s novel How to Be Both (whose conversation without a common language I recently shared). The protagonist in one half of the novel, a teenage girl named George who is grieving for her late mother, compulsively corrects people’s usage – sometimes vocally, sometimes silently.

We notice the habit in the story’s first scene, a flashback. George is travelling in the car with her mother, and her little brother is asleep in the back. She is looking up the lyrics to ‘Let’s Twist Again’, and they annoy her in multiple ways. (Smith doesn’t use quotation marks or other punctuation to mark speech.)

The words are pretty bad. Let’s twist again like we did last summer. Let’s twist again like we did last year. Then there’s a really bad rhyme, a rhyme that isn’t, properly speaking, even a rhyme.

Do you remember when

Things were really hummin’.

Hummin’ doesn’t rhyme with summer, the line doesn’t end in a question mark, and is it meant to mean, literally, do you remember that time when things smelt really bad?

Then Let’s twist again, twisting time is here. Or, as all the sites say, twistin’ time.

At least they’ve used an apostrophe, the George from before her mother died says.

I do not give a fuck about whether some site on the internet attends to grammatical correctness, the George from after says.

As the story develops, seemingly trivial moments like this take on ever more significance. Since her mother died, George has been unable to enjoy music, so she’s seeking a way back in: through music her mother loved. She keeps replaying conversations they had, and the George ‘from before’ and ‘from after’ show shifts in her feelings about all sorts of things, including English usage.

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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]