Dictionary matters

March 24, 2017

I have dictionaries on the brain – more than usual – having just read and reviewed Kory Stamper’s book Word by Word. So it’s a good time to share a couple of posts I wrote for the blog at Macmillan Dictionary, which, incidentally, underwent a makeover recently.

The first post has a self-explanatory title: What does it mean when a word is not in the dictionary?

No English dictionary includes every single word – not even the Oxford English Dictionary. . . . Nor does the OED – or any other dictionary – include every word from the many sublanguages, dialects, and specialist lingos: this would be an impossible task. Macmillan Dictionary, by contrast, includes historical words only if they’re still in common use. And because it’s primarily a learner’s dictionary, it forgoes obsolete usages altogether. Macmillan’s focus on contemporary language means that one of its strengths is how quickly it keeps up with the changes and new additions to English vocabulary.

The example I focus on is snowflake, in its non-weather-related sense, because it’s common enough that people are encountering it regularly and looking it up, but it’s also new enough that it’s not yet listed in most dictionaries.

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A world of English at Macmillan Dictionary looks at an ongoing series from Macmillan called Real World English. This is a set of videos and blog posts about dialectal variation in English vocabulary and pragmatics, especially between UK and US English in a work context.

One of the motifs of the Real World English series is that these varieties of English have different standards and conventions. None of them are necessarily more correct than any others, but what’s normal and obvious in one dialect may be obscure or ambiguous in another. Being aware of how various Englishes diverge in usage can help us improve our understanding of, and communication with, people who speak another variety. This is an increasingly important skill in work and social situations, now that telecommunications and internet technology have made the world smaller. We often communicate with people on several different continents every day, especially if we use social media.

The post goes on to discuss the range of dialects featured in the series or in other resources on the website, including Brazilian English, Indian English, Philippine English, and so on. You can also read older posts at my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.


Book review: ‘Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries’ by Kory Stamper

March 21, 2017

Dictionaries occupy a unique cultural space straddling invisibility and authority. Those of us with a keen interest in words, be it professional, hobbyist, or obsessive to the point of mania, now and then ponder the mystique of these works of reference. Who writes them? What drew them to the work? How were they trained? Who decides what to include? How, exactly, do dictionaries come to be?

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, answers all the questions you might care to ask a lexicographer. It casts a coruscating light on the never-ending work of a dictionary – ‘a human document, constantly being compiled, proofread, and updated by actual, living, awkward people’ – and also, necessarily, on words themselves in all their strange, slippery wonder.

Each chapter in Word by Word is named after a word that serves as a base from which Stamper explores deeper, broader issues of lexicography and of the English language, such as its history, politics, and essential mutability. For example, ‘Irregardless: On Wrong Words’ examines variety in English negation and the social status of dialects. Stamper’s initial aversion to irregardless, this ‘harbinger of linguistic doom’, softens through exposure and investigation to the point where she becomes ‘America’s foremost “irregardless” apologist’.

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How a usage dispute snuck into a Simpsons comic

March 3, 2017

Reporting on a grammar debate in a crime novel by Michael Connelly, I remarked that the politics of English usage can show up anywhere. Sure enough, I just came across a great example in Simpsons Comics Royale, a comic book from Matt Groening and colleagues published by HarperCollins in 2001.

The issue this time is sneaked vs. snuck. It features centrally in a story about Radioactive Man called ‘Planet of the Strange-O’s’, which begins with our eponymous superhero dashing into what he thinks is a portable toilet (‘This is the nicest porta-potty I’ve ever been in!’). But the structure is not a porta-potty but a portal-potty, and by flushing it Radioactive Man ends up (FLUSHOOOOOM!) in another dimension.

Here he is soon surrounded by an army of near-Doppelgangers on a mission. You can recognise them below by their pale, cracked lower faces; Radioactive Man’s, by contrast, is yellow and smooth. The Strange-O’s pressure him to join them, but he resists. That’s when, shibboleth style, a dispute over usage (and semantics) breaks out:

[click images to embiggen]

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Irishly having tea

March 1, 2017

Passing through the pleasingly named town of Gort on my way to the Burren recently, I popped in to a second-hand bookshop and picked up a couple of Brian Moore books I hadn’t read: Catholics and The Doctor’s Wife. Everything I’ve read by Moore has been time well spent, yet most people I ask have not read him, and many have not heard of him.

brian-moore-catholics-books-cover-penguinCatholics (1972) is more novella than novel, around 80 pages long in my Penguin paperback edition. Work won’t allow a single-sitting read today, so I’m taking bites from it on my breaks. The title is straightforwardly descriptive: a young American priest is sent from Rome to a remote island off the west coast of Ireland, where old and new Catholicism square up against each another.

The young priest, Kinsella, has just landed on the island – the first time it hosted a helicopter – and meets with the presiding Abbot in a large parlour. Sitting on rough furniture carved by the local monks, with Atlantic light streaming in through a 13th-century window, they enact a ritual within rituals:

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Book review: Dent’s Modern Tribes, by Susie Dent

February 7, 2017

Jargon and slang get a bad press. In the right contexts, though, they serve an important communicative purpose, at the same time allowing users to express their identity as part of a community – and to have fun with language while doing so.

Any specialised activity accumulates its own vocabulary, born of the particular actions, situations, equipment, and people involved. These lingos occasionally leak into other domains, or even the mainstream, but for the most part they remain more or less constrained or hidden, niche terminologies available only to the tribes in question.

susie-dent-dents-modern-tribes-the-secret-languages-of-britain-book-coverIn her new book Dent’s Modern Tribes: The Secret Languages of Britain, Susie Dent presents a host of these distinct lexicons for wider appreciation. As well as being a lifelong word lover, Dent is an unabashed eavesdropper, ear always poised for scraps of idiosyncratic interaction. That method, combined with straight-up interviews and chats, has yielded a wealth of material from a great variety of human professions and hobbies: cab drivers and cricketers, actors and anglers, soldiers and spies, roadies and ravers, firefighters and freemasons, teachers and (of course) trainspotters – dozens in all, each a rich source of verbal codes and curiosities.

These lexicons bundle history aplenty. For example, ever since Churchill, as UK home secretary, gave black-cab drivers the right to refuse a fare while eating, cabbies have referred to a meal as a Churchill. A slow period for taxis is called kipper season, ‘apparently from the days when cabbies could only afford to eat kippers’. Other terms are derived from more immediate sources: among cabin crew members a slam-clicker is, echoically, one who ‘goes straight to the hotel on landing and doesn’t emerge again until it’s time to leave’.

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Don’t flout this distinction – flaunt it

February 3, 2017

English, in its superabundance, has many multiples of words and phrases that overlap contentiously in meaning. These confusables are the bread and butter of usage manuals: imply and infer, disinterested and uninterested, careen and career, defuse and diffuse, convince and persuade, militate and mitigate, refute and reject, and flaunt and flout.

Some of these pairs are worth distinguishing; others are not. Part of editing well – and writing well – is knowing which distinctions to preserve and which to disregard. Examining over versus more than, John E. McIntyre refers to dog-whistle editing: ‘the observance of nuances that only copy editors can hear, and thus a waste of time’.

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Prefixes and pearl clutchers

January 31, 2017

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about a prefix going independent and a slew of new insults.

Familiar as a prefix of negation, dis- can also tell us less obvious things about some of the words it modifies, as I explore in Don’t dis this prefix:

Dis- can shed light on a word’s history or etymology. You probably know the verb enthral in the sense captivate: to ‘make you so interested in or excited by something that you give it all your attention’. Adding the dis- prefix produces the rare word disenthral, a recent addition to our Open Dictionary. Disenthral means release – not from captivation but from captivity; it means ‘set free, liberate’. This is because enthral originally meant ‘hold in thrall’ quite literally – to enslave or hold captive – and disenthral contains and negates that earlier sense.

The post goes on to discuss how dis- broke free of its bound status to become the standalone verb dis or diss, meaning ‘disrespect’.

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Pearl clutchers, snowflakes, elites and SJWs examines some insults currently in vogue in political debates and online arguments. It begins with elite:

Though the word’s traditional meaning and connotations are positive – elite sportsperson, elite team of astronauts – nowadays it’s often used pejoratively, much as the derived words elitist and elitism usually are. Discussing elite as her word of the week, Nancy Friedman noted that while it is ‘ubiquitous and positive’ in branding, in political discourse it has ‘become a term of opprobrium’. Macmillan Dictionary’s entry presents the difference neatly.

You can read the whole thing for more on these weaponized words, and catch up on older posts in my Macmillan Dictionary archive.