‘The most coveted and desirable book in the world’

April 10, 2019

Oliver Sacks is one of my favourite science writers, for many reasons: the remarkable lives he reports, his insight and empathy in doing so, his unabashed honesty, his love for the creative arts. He also excels at conveying technical ideas and complicated phenomena in plain language without compromising their complexity.

Sacks has a flair for the right word, the telling metaphor, the poetic flourish that impresses his stories’ truth. He doesn’t rely on jargon but will use it when appropriate. Though his breadth of vocabulary and command of registers are impressive, they never feel forced or flashy. This is someone whose love of words is obvious in their prose – you might think this would be automatic with authors, but it’s not.

Recently, after reading Sacks’s book The Mind’s Eye, I visited his YouTube channel to catch up on any supplemental material, and ended up watching all the videos (there aren’t many, and they’re short). In one, Sacks reads an anecdote from his autobiography, about his time at the University of Oxford, which chimes nicely with his logophilia:

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Sequoyah’s syllabary for the Cherokee language

April 2, 2019

Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel has an engrossing chapter on the evolution of writing as a communication technology. It includes a brief account of the development of a syllabary – a set of written characters that represent syllables – for the Cherokee language. The syllabary looks like this:

Original Cherokee syllabary, via Wikipedia

Some of the signs (or ‘syllabograms’) will look familiar, others like variations of familiar shapes. But any similarity to the Roman, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets is misleading. For example, in a nice demonstration of the arbitrariness of the sign, the first three, R, D, W, encode the sounds e, a, la. So what’s going on?

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Book spine poem: When the Lights Go Down

March 20, 2019

I almost forgot how much fun it is to make book spine poems. My last one was about a year ago (and led to an interview at the OED), so it’s about time I did another. This one tells a miniature story.

*

When the Lights Go Down

Stranger on a train, heading inland,

Civilwarland in bad decline.

Autumn-dark voyage,

The light of evening,

The signal and the noise.

One shot without conscience

when the lights go down:

Death in a white tie, a brilliant void.

Reader, I murdered him.

*

A vertical stack of books, with their spines facing the viewer and forming a found poem

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Mizzled by misles

February 27, 2019

The first time you saw the word biopic, did you pronounce it ‘bi-OPic’, to rhyme with myopic, either aloud or in your head, before learning that it’s ‘bio-pic’, as in biographical picture? If so, you were well and truly mizzled. I mean MY-zelled. No, wait: misled.

There are words we know, or think we know, but: (1) we probably got to know them in print before hearing them spoken, and (2) their spelling is ambiguous or misleading in a way that leads us to ‘hear’ them differently – perhaps incorrectly – in our mind’s ear.

Eventually there’s a lightbulb moment. Oh, it’s a bio-pic, not a bi-opic! I’ve been mis-led, not mizzled! Some linguists and language enthusiasts call these troublesome words misles, back-formed from misled, which is perhaps the prototypical misle.

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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.


Is ‘corpse whale’ the real etymology of ‘narwhal’?

February 8, 2019

‘We know more about the rings of Saturn than we know about the narwhal,’ writes Barry Lopez in Arctic Dreams. This ignorance extends to its etymology. Wondering why the animal remains ‘so obscure and uncelebrated’, Lopez believes that the answer lies partly with ‘a regrettable connotation of death in the animal’s name’:

The pallid color of the narwhal’s skin has been likened to that of a drowned human corpse, and it is widely thought that its name came from the Old Norse for “corpse” and “whale,” nár + hvalr. A medieval belief that the narwhal’s flesh was poisonous has been offered in support of this interpretation, as well as the belief that its “horn” was proof at that time against being poisoned.

This is certainly the prevailing etymology. Look up narwhal in most major dictionaries that offer one – American Heritage, Oxford, Merriam-Webster, the Online Etymology Dictionary – and you’ll see the ‘corpse whale’ derivation presented more or less definitively, with a ‘probably’ or two included as insurance.

Lopez shares a different possibility:

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The Irish diminutive suffix -een

January 16, 2019

In A Brilliant Void, a new anthology of vintage Irish science fiction edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018), I saw some examples of a grammatical feature I’ve been meaning to write about: the Irish English suffix –een. Anglicised from Irish –ín /iːn/, it normally signifies littleness or endearment but can also disparage or serve other functions.

Look up –ín in Ó Dónaill’s Irish-English dictionary and you’ll find such diverse examples as an t-éinín bíogach ‘the chirpy little bird’, an choisín chomair ‘the neat little foot’, an bheainín ghleoite ‘the charming little woman’, an méirín púca ‘the foxglove’, and an paidrín páirteach ‘the family rosary’.

The –ín suffix is so productive in Irish, and Irish so influences the traditional dialects of English in Ireland, that it’s no surprise –een became established in vernacular Irish English, especially in the west. You probably know it if you’re at all familiar with Irish speech or culture; even if not, you may recognise some of the examples below.

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