Asperging words

October 3, 2022

Here’s a verb I don’t remember encountering before. It crops up near the end of this passage in Seamus Deane’s novel Reading in the Dark (1996), where the author describes a dramatic childhood winter in Northern Ireland:

Paperback book cover of Vintage edition features a photo, black and white but tinted pink, of two schoolboys in uniform. One boy looks melancholy; the other smiles cheerfully at the camera. Below the author's name and book title is a line from the publisher about the book winning the Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Irish Literature Prize 1997.The Germans came only once, made a bombing run on the docks where the American ships were lined up in threes and fours, missed, and never came again. The sirens had given several false alarms before, but this time the throb of the approaching planes seemed to make them more frenetic. We woke to their wild moanings, were carried to safety under the stairs and cradled sleepily between our parents, lightly asperged by the bright drops of cold Lourdes water that my mother would every so often sprinkle on us. I remember the silence when the droning stopped and then the long lamentation of each plane’s dive.

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Continual vs continuous – what’s the difference?

September 15, 2022

Introduction and origins

What’s the difference between continual and continuous? There’s a short answer, but it’s misleading, so – surprise! – I’m going with the long and complicated one.

Some people make a firm distinction between the two adjectives, but others don’t or only sometimes do. The distinction has merit, but it’s not categorical, more the codification of a general but lopsided pattern.

Because the words are so close in sense and use, they’re often used interchangeably (the adverbs continually and continuously even more so). This seldom leads to confusion or difficulty, but it’s also true that each word has domains it specializes in and others it’s less suited to.

Both words come from Latin continuus ‘hanging together, uninterrupted’, continual arriving via Old French continuel. Their endings, ­–al and ous, are common adjective-forming suffixes. The words’ more recent history sheds light on their use, but first let’s look at how they’re defined, since this reflects how they’re used and gets to the centre of the problem.

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Irish words in English and the OED

August 11, 2022

Dozens of Irish English words and phrases were added to the OED in March 2022, including Irish words used in Irish English. I’ve written about some of these before (hames, notions, plámás, ráiméis, ruaille buaille); others include a chara, blow-in, bockety, ceol, ciotóg, cúpla focal, delph, ghost estate, grá, guard, sean nós, segotia, and shift.

OED editor Danica Salazar writes:

The words and phrases featured in the OED’s March update provide a small yet vivid snapshot of Irish English usage in the past and present. We will continue our efforts in enriching the dictionary’s coverage of Irish English and feature even more new words and senses in future updates.

This will be welcomed by scholars who feel that Celtic words – and word-origins – in the English lexicon have traditionally been under-acknowledged by linguistic authorities. Loreto Todd, in Green English: Ireland’s Influence on the English Language, says there has been ‘a long-standing reluctance to recognise the presence of Celtic words in the English language’.*

Yet for all the richness and strength of Irish English dialects in Ireland and of Irish literature internationally, the influence of Irish and Irish English on the broader English language has been modest. You might wonder why, given Ireland and Great Britain’s geographical, social, and political (though fraught, i.e., colonialist) closeness.

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Wordable awareness

April 7, 2022

I came across an interesting word in Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man (Picador, 2007). It appears in the middle of a conversation between an estranged couple, here discussing their son:

‘We talked about it,’ Keith said. ‘But only once.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Not much. And neither did I.’
‘They’re searching the skies.’
‘That’s right,’ he said.
She knew there was something she’d wanted to say all along and it finally seeped into wordable awareness.
‘Has he said anything about this man Bill Lawton?
‘Just once. He wasn’t supposed to tell anyone.’
‘Their mother mentioned this name. I keep forgetting to tell you. First I forget the name. I forget the easy names. Then, when I remember, you’re never around to tell.’

Seeped into wordable awareness is a lovely phrase, and wordable is a curiously rare word, given its straightforward morphology and transparent meaning. It has virtually no presence in large language corpora:

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We ourself can use this pronoun

March 25, 2022

On a recent rewatch of the 1979 film The Warriors, I noticed an unusual pronoun spoken by Cleon, played by Dorsey Wright:*

Still image from The Warriors. Cleon, played by Dorsey Wright, is shown in close-up wearing a head-dress, saying, 'I think we'd better go have a look for ourself.' It's night time, and the background shows pale blurry lights.

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.

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Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction

September 21, 2021

Anyone who’s into both word lore and science fiction will have a fine time exploring the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction. Call it cyberspacefaring.* Launched in early 2021, the HD/SF was once an official project of the OED but is now run independently by lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower. A work in progress, it aims to:

illustrate the core vocabulary of science fiction; it also aims to cover several related fields, such as critical terms relating to science fiction (and other genres of imaginative fiction such as fantasy and horror), and the vocabulary of science-fiction fandom.

Definitions are ‘comprehensive but brief’ and are supplemented by ample literary quotations, aka citations. These, ‘the most important part of this dictionary’, show each word or phrase in use, from the earliest detected case to more recent examples. Some entries also have etymologies, usage labels, historical notes, and so on.

Logo of the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction, with the title in a classic vintage sf typeface (which I haven't identified)

This beautiful retrofuturist typeface is Sagittarius by Hoefler&Co.
see the link for an account of its inspiration and development.

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The strange absence of ‘ambiguate’

August 22, 2021

If I asked you to name or invent a word that means ‘make ambiguous’, what would it be – ambiguify? ambiguate? I’ve felt an occasional need for such a term, to say that a word or piece of syntax ambiguates the meaning in text or speech.

I mean, sure, I can say ‘makes the sense ambiguous’. But there’s no reason not to have a one-word verb. After all, we have its antonym, disambiguate: to make something unambiguous. More on that later.

Take this use of since: Since I’ve been injured, I haven’t gone running. Does it mean ‘because’ or ‘since the time that’? Is its meaning causal or temporal? Without further information, there’s no way to be sure. The choice of conjunction ambiguates the sense.

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