Lewis Carroll, prescriptivist

June 15, 2017

Lewis Carroll was an enthusiastic and prolific letter-writer. On New Year’s Day in 1861, aged 28, he began to keep a register of the letters he sent, and the last one it records is number 98,721. The full tally, forever unknown, is probably much higher.

The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll (Macmillan Press, 1982), edited by Morton Cohen, has some items of interest on the subject of language use. For example: Writing to Edith Rix on 15 January 1886, Carroll teases her about a spelling error and about her choice of preposition after different: she uses to, but he favours – insists on – from:

Now I come to your letter dated December 22nd, and must scold you for saying that my solution of the problem was “quite different to all common ways of doing it”: if you think that’s good English, well and good; but I must beg to differ to you, and to hope you will never write me a sentence similar from this again. However, “worse remains behind”; and if you deliberately intend in future, when writing to me about one of England’s greatest poets, to call him “Shelly”, then all I can say is, that you and I will have to quarrel! Be warned in time.

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The Samuel Johnson notes: A very nice word

April 5, 2017

Everyone who uses language has their crutch words. These personal clichés fill a gap in common contexts, giving us a break from the burden of originality. Many are adjectives: academics have noteworthy, campus kids have awesome, and I have nice.

Almost anything positive could invite it: nice tune, nice scarf, nice work, nice idea. I also use nice in its narrower sense meaning subtle, fine-grained: a nice distinction. Both senses are familiar to modern ears. Go back a few centuries, though, and the word becomes a chameleonic stranger.

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A fierce popular usage in Ireland

October 28, 2016

The adjective fierce has a range of overlapping meanings that convey aggression, savagery, intensity, and so on (fierce dog/battle/debate/storm), reflecting its origin in Latin ferus ‘wild, untamed’. In modern use its connotations are often negative or neutral, but it can also modify positive qualities (fierce loyalty/passion/strength).

Fierce leads a different sort of life in colloquial Irish English, where we put it to adverbial use as an intensifier, like very. I could say it’s fierce mild out, or that someone is fierce generous or fierce polite. The seeming paradox of these phrases is apparent to me only upon reflection; they come naturally to speakers of Hiberno-English.

Here are some examples from Twitter and boards.ie:

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Parky weather

January 19, 2015

Beryl Bainbridge’s 1996 novel Every Man for Himself, whose events take place on board the Titanic, uses (and mentions) an adjective I don’t remember seeing in print before, though I think I’ve heard it on British TV:

Beryl Bainbridge - every man for himself - Abacus book coverIt was cold on deck and the few people about had sensibly put on coats and scarves. We walked to the dull roar of the ship as it waded the leaden sea. The night was moonless, windless; rags of dance music floated up from the deck below. ‘It’s parky,’ I exclaimed, the word rising from my subconscious like a fish from the deep.

‘A curious adjective,’ Scurry pondered. ‘It can mean both inclement weather and a sharpness of tongue. It’s intriguing, don’t you agree, the flotsam we allow to surface from the past?’

The OED has no entry for parky ‘sharp-tongued’, or even ‘inclement’. It defines the word as ‘cold, chilly’ – presumably the narrator’s intended sense – with citations from 1895. Its etymology is uncertain. Parky can also mean ‘resembling or relating to parks’ or ‘having lots of parks’, and is a variant of parkie ‘park-keeper’, but these are relatively run-of-the-mill usages.

Something else I liked about this passage from Bainbridge is the description of ‘rags of dance music’ floating up along the ship, rags not only evoking the threads of melody adrift in the north Atlantic night but also perhaps providing a clue to the type of music being played: ragtime, one of my first loves on piano.


Hobby, hobbier, hobbiest hobbyists

October 3, 2014

I’m making my way erratically through Robert Crais’s back catalogue of detective fiction, and today in Demolition Angel (Orion, 2000) happened upon an unusual misspelling:

robert crais - demolition angel - Orion books - hobbyists hobbiests typo

Hobbiests! I almost read right past it. But once a proofreader, etc.

Obviously it should be hobbyists, meaning people devoted to a hobby. Hobbiest looks like a superlative adjective – “the most hobby”. But the two words are pronounced very similarly or identically, and many more words end in –iest than –yist, so you can see how the non-standard form might have materialised.

Although hobbiest has yet to appear as a variant spelling in any of the major dictionaries, a Google search shows it to be common in unedited writing. This is the first time I remember seeing it in a published book. Proofreaders, en garde: lobbiest may be next.

Edit: Here it is again, later in the book, this time in the singular.

robert crais - demolition angel - Orion books - hobbyists hobbiests typo 2


Language cranks, hail-fellow-well-met

August 16, 2014

I have two new posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

First up, Why heed the language cranks? continues a recent theme:

People who are inclined to be intolerant of others find in language usage ample grist to their mill. Though English has a broad and accommodating variety of styles to suit a range of occasions and preferences, sticklers favour a very formal mode of the language – usually the version they were taught in school – and they advocate it in all contexts. This is as inappropriate, even as silly, as telling everyone to wear formal dress all the time.

I would happily ignore the usage cranks if they weren’t routinely given significant platforms from which to air their prejudicial misconceptions. This publicity helps them tap into widespread uncertainty about what grammar is and how language works.

You can read the rest here.

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Hail-phrase-well-met looks at a curious old phrase, hail fellow well met, to establish what exactly it means and where it might have come from:

Macmillan Dictionary, which hyphenates the phrase, says hail-fellow-well-met is an adjective that means ‘behaving in a very friendly way that is annoying or does not seem sincere’. So it packs quite a lot of nuance into a few familiar, if unpredictably arranged, words, usually indicating not so much a certain amount of social intimacy as an assumption or display of too much of it. It may be an extension of the shorter phrase hail-fellow (also Hail, fellow!, etc.), which the OED notes was both a greeting and a descriptive expression used in a range of constructions. The second part, Well met, was also a greeting: roughly ‘it’s good that we’ve met’, according to World Wide Words.

Sometimes, too, the phrase carries no negative connotations. For examples and further discussion, pop over to Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

For older articles you can browse the archive.


The curses and adjectives of Luis Buñuel

June 24, 2014

This week I read My Last Breath, the autobiography of one of my favourite filmmakers, Luis Buñuel. Mischievous, opinionated, and full of eye-opening anecdotes from his long and frankly surreal life, it also has a couple of passages on matters linguistic that may be of general interest.

First, on the importance of choosing a good name, in this case for artistic works:

In my search for titles, I’ve always tried to follow the old surrealist trick of finding a totally unexpected word or group of words which opens up a new perspective on a painting or book. This strategy is obvious in titles like Un Chien andalou, L’Age d’or, and even The Exterminating Angel. While we were working on this screenplay [The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie], however, we never once thought about the word “bourgeoisie.” On the last day at the Parador in Toledo, the day de Gaulle died, we were desperate; I came up with A bas Lénin, ou la Vierge à l’écurie (Down with Lenin, or The Virgin in the Manger). Finally, someone suggested Le Charme de la bourgeoisie; but Carrière [Jean-Claude, screenwriter] pointed out that we needed an adjective, so after sifting through what seemed like thousands of them, we finally stumbled upon “discreet.” Suddenly the film took on a different shape altogether, even a different point of view. It was truly a marvelous discovery.

The next passage concerns an incident during the Spanish Civil War. Buñuel has left Madrid for Geneva on the instruction of the Republican minister for foreign affairs, but he is warned en route that his identification papers will not get him past the border. Sure enough, a panel of “three somber-faced anarchists” halt his passage: You can’t cross here, they tell him. Buñuel has other ideas:

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