“Nope” intensifies, diversifies grammatically

December 22, 2014

Remember the transformation of fail and win 5–6 years ago? Fleeting online slang phrases like bucket of fail and made of win may sound dated now, but terms like epic fail/win and FTW (“for the win”) and the words’ use as tags and hashtags remain popular. Fail and win have firmly, if informally, extended their grammatical domains, having been converted from verb to noun, interjection, and other categories.

A word undergoing comparable change is nope. Its metamorphosis over the last few years has in some ways been more impressive, but it seems less remarked on than fail and win – maybe because of its more limited distribution. For instance, this cartoon on Imgur (pronunciation note here), which shows Spider-Man shooting spiders from his hands, drew comments that use nope as a verb, adjective, and noun – mass and count – as well as duplicating, lengthening, and adverbifying it.

Some of the comments are listed below. A couple have swear words, so you might prefer to skip ahead if you’re likely to be offended by those:

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Non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens

October 10, 2014

Happy the reader who is unselfconscious about hyphens. Or is it unself-conscious? Un-selfconscious? When we add a prefix to a word that’s already (sometimes) hyphenated, it’s not always obvious whether and where a hyphen should go in the new compound. Tastes differ. Even un-self-conscious has its advocates.

I’m all for the solid, unambiguous unselfconscious, recommended by the Oxford Manual of Style among others. But different compounds raise different issues, and there’s variation and disagreement in each case over which style works best. That may be understating it: Fowler referred to “chaos” and “humiliation” in the prevailing use of hyphens.

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In defence of unnecessary words

February 6, 2014

A conservative criticism commonly levelled at new words is that they are “unnecessary” – that we already have a perfectly good and proper word for whatever it is, so why introduce this needless alternative, this objectionable offshoot, this linguistic weed? Because god forbid there should be an overabundance of words. Think of the mess.

Traditionalists decry or resist neologisms they find redundant, those that overlap with existing words rather than fill an obvious gap in the language. There’s simply no need for it, goes the argument. And it’s not just words. New grammatical patterns get the same treatment: after writing about the innovative because X construction, I was told it was ugly and unnecessary.

An aside: Sometimes neologisms are distinguished from nonce-words, words invented for a single occasion or situation. Critics spare these because they’re disposable coinages and not seriously intended as additions to the language. Though sometimes a useful distinction, it’s not always a clear one; in the rapid everyday exchange of language, no one knows what will catch on.

Tom Gauld - cartoon for the Guardian on neologisms and forgotten words[Cartoon by Tom Gauld for the Guardian]

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Children’s awareness of irregular verbs

August 13, 2012

I’ve been enjoying Steven Pinker’s Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (1999). More technical and focused than his popular bestseller The Language Instinct, it is effectively a monograph on linguistic irregularity, examining in particular how we inflect verbs for past tense and plurality, and what the exceptions can tell us about the structure of language and our minds.

In chapter 7, ‘Kids Say the Darnedest Things’, Pinker points out that children sometimes know that the mistakes they make are mistakes. He cites Dan Slobin and Tom Bever, psycholinguists who inserted their children’s speech errors into their own speech and recorded the results:

TOM: Where’s Mommy?
CHILD: Mommy goed to the store.
TOM: Mommy goed to the store?
CHILD: NO! (annoyed) Daddy, I say it that way, not you.

CHILD: You readed some of it too . . . she readed all the rest.
DAN: She read the whole thing to you, huh?
CHILD: Nu-uh, you read some.
DAN: Oh, that’s right, yeah, I readed the beginning of it.
CHILD: Readed? (annoyed surprise) Read! (pronounced rĕd)
DAN: Oh yeah, read.
CHILD: Will you stop that, Papa?

Pinker infers from this, and from the evidence of more controlled studies, that children know irregular forms better than we might suppose; as they progressively master these forms, their errors are “slip-ups in which they cannot slot an irregular form into a sentence in real time”. Adults make similar slips, though nowhere near as often.

The main points of Words and Rules are set out in a short lecture (PDF) of the same name, while the London Review of Books has a critical review by Charles Yang.

The monstrous indecency of hybrid etymology

November 28, 2011

The word hybrid (from Latin hybrida, “mongrel”) commonly refers to animals and plants of mixed lineage, and more recently to vehicles with two or more power sources. In linguistic morphology it refers to a word formed by combining elements that originated in two or more languages. The process is called hybridization.

Many new words arise through compounding and affixation, and a lot of roots and affixes in English derive from Latin or Greek — sometimes indirectly, such as through French. (Classical compounds are a related source of new vocabulary, but they are of a “purer” strain than hybrids and need not concern us here.)

There is a tendency for like to join with like, but because affixes from other languages are so well-established in English, and their origins are not widely known, etymological affinity is not routinely observed when words are formed. English has always added foreign bits to native bits, and both to other foreign bits. It does this in its sleep.

Hybrids are ubiquitous: they “luxuriate in the English word-garden”, as Simeon Potter put it. A familiar example is television, which (via French) yokes Greek tele- “far” to Latin visio “seeing”. Neuroscience joins Greek neuro- “nerve” to science, from Latin scientia “knowledge”. Other hybrids include automobile, hypercorrectionlovable, merriment, monolingual, sociology, and talkative.

Frankenstein’s monster reads a hybrid word and collapses in a daze; Dr F. flees in fright and disgust.

Purists used to complain about hybrids as if it were somehow unsavoury to fuse morphemes from different languages. Maybe this attitude owed something to a fastidious temperament and a bias for classical learning. Jan Freeman, writing about these Frankenwords, said that “usage gurus who could flaunt their Greek and Latin did, and those who couldn’t copied them.”

Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, said neologisms should avoid “unseemly misalliance” and pay heed to “etymological decency”. Ralcy Husted Bell called jeopardize “a monster”, which seems a bit harsh. These phrases give the impression that hybrids are malformed abominations, hideous chimeras to be shunned and disowned.

In their influential King’s English, the Fowler brothers object to amoral on the grounds that a- is Greek, moral is Latin, and it is “desirable that in making new words the two languages should not be mixed”. H. W. Fowler later compiled the following “ill-favoured list, of which all readers will condemn some, & some all”:

amoral, amusive, backwardation, bi-daily, bureaucracy, cablegram, climactic, coastal, colouration, dandiacal, floatation, funniment, gullible, impedance, pacifist, racial, sendee, speedometer

Several are so commonplace that it’s hard to imagine them bothering anyone; others never caught on. Often it seems to be the newness wherein lies the main trouble: rarely is there a problem with well-established hybrids. On this point, Robert Burchfield found that “the arguments apply only to words formed in the 19C. and 20C.”

Fowler believed that word-making,

like other manufactures, should be done by those who know how to do it; others should neither attempt it for themselves, nor assist the deplorable activities of amateurs by giving currency to fresh coinages before there has been time to test them.

But even if we were to deny ourselves the natural, playful urge to neologise, who would do the testing to which Fowler refers? An elite cadre of grammarians and grammaticasters, or the general population whose language it equally is? Again I find myself siding with Burchfield, in his New Fowler’s Modern English Usage:

Homogeneity of language origin comes low in [language users’] ranking of priorities; euphony, analogy, a sense of appropriateness, an instinctive belief that a word will settle in if there is a need for it and will disappear if there is not — these are the factors that operate when hybrids (like any other new words) are brought into the language.

This to me is a more sane and tolerant stance, free of purist dogma and control-freakery. Rejecting hybrids in English just because their parts’ ancient origins don’t match is pointless peevery. Bryan Garner, in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, writes that nowadays “only a few Classics professors” object to them. Let us be thankful for that.

My only regret is that hybrid is not a hybrid and so does not describe itself the way portmanteau does. But it’s probably too late to do anything about that.


Updates: Ben Zimmer has drawn my attention to a T-shirt with the text: “Polyamory is wrong! It is either multiamory or polyphilia but mixing Greek and Latin roots? Wrong!”

Ben quotes a similar joke from Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love: “Homosexuality? What barbarity! It’s half Greek and half Latin!”

This post also appears on the Visual Thesaurus.
[Frankenstein image from Wikimedia Commons]

Absoposilutely infixed

October 7, 2011

Affixes are normally added to the start or end of a word, where they’re called prefixes and suffixes, respectively. But sometimes they appear in the middle, as infixes. (There are several other categories of affix.)

Infixation in English is often jocular or playful, as in “Homer-ic” edumacation, or Ned-Flandersy scrum-diddly-umptious, where diddly is infixed and um is reduplicated. (If you’re unfamiliar with reduplication, you might want to click that link for a summary: it’s relevant to what follows.)

Another familiar form of infixation is expletive infixation, as in absofuckinglutely, where the infix serves to intensify the expression. Less rude is absobloodylutely, and milder still but retaining the structure is absoposilutely, which borrows posi from positively.

Song Kang-ho in Thirst (2009)

I didn’t expect to see absoposilutely in the subtitles of a Korean horror film, but there it was. It seems unlikely that it was used as a straightforward synonym for absolutely. It made me wonder whether Korean has an analogous system of emphatic infixation, or what kind of morphological construction the translation might have served to suggest.

I know very little about the Korean language, but I found an interesting paper, Hyung-Soo Kim’s “A new look at partial reduplication in Korean” (PDF), that discusses “the problem of having to accept infixation only in partial reduplication in Korean because there is no evidence for infixation elsewhere in Korean morphology.”

So a partial answer to my question is that Korean doesn’t appear to have infixation,* but it does have internal partial reduplication, an instance of which may have been what was translated into absoposilutely in the film subtitles. But that last part’s a guess.

For more on the use and variety of affixes, see my post “Morphogasmic affixation” and the links therein. You might also enjoy John J. McCarthy’s “Prosodic structure and expletive infixation” (PDF), which characterises expletive infixes according to metric phonology – that is, it offers an explanation for why we tend to say absofuckinglutely rather than abfuckingsolutely or absolutefuckingly. If we say it at all.
* Other sources I looked at include Jongho Jun, “Variable affix position in Korean partial reduplication” (PDF); Alan C. L. Yu, “A Natural History of Infixation” (PDF); and a few items on Google Books.

The green stuff

July 11, 2011

If you’re a regular visitor, you might know that I’ve been writing weekly posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. June was Green English month – that is, the language of the environment and all things eco-friendly – so a few of my recent posts focused on this.

First up, “It will all come out in the greenwash” looks at some of the jargon that has emerged from the green movement, such as greentailing, greenwashing, and eco-bling:

Some companies are unscrupulous about jumping on the green bandwagon in an effort to boost their profits. This has given rise to the term greenwash – formed by analogy with whitewash. Just as whitewash indicates greater concern with appearance than with what lies beneath, and indicates attempts to cover up incriminatory facts, so greenwash refers to superficial activities intended to show concern about the environment and distract from damage being done.

As Kerry Maxwell points out in her BuzzWord article, greenwash has been around since the early 1990s, and its use has spread from advertising contexts to political and personal ones. [more]

In “Have I seen you be -vore?”, I examine the -vore suffix, which comes from French -vore, from Latin -vorous, from vorare (devour, swallow quickly) and with which we’re familiar from words such as herbivore, carnivore, and omnivore. This pattern is greatly extended in scientific terminology, where we see

words like insectivore, piscivore, nectarivore, frugivore (fruit-eater), detritivore, and granivore (eats seeds, not grandmothers), and their adjectival forms: insectivorous, etc.

In these cases, -vore signals the act of eating, and what precedes it indicates what is eaten. But more recent coinages work differently, signalling a shift (or lapse) in how the suffix is used. One of these is locavore, sometimes localvore. Although superficially it has the same form as the traditional -vore words, it does not work quite the same way: it has nothing to do with eating locals. [more]

Out of the red with the green stuff” takes a different approach to green English by noting the colour’s association with money. Green is where the language of the environment and the language of business overlap, and now it seems

the “green economy” is spreading to unexpected quarters: a recent article in Time magazine reports that Sicily’s mafia want in on the act.

The article discusses clean energy and dirty money, phrases that draw on particular metaphors I’ve written about before. Its title mentions the mafia’s “hunger for power”, a metaphor that refers in this instance to renewable energy but is apt in other ways. For one thing, when we talk about money, we often talk metaphorically about food, as Diane Nicholls’s article shows. Also, Italy is where the Slow Food movement, which promotes green living, is said to have begun. [more]

Finally, in “Cut me some slacktivism” I write about different kinds of modern activism, how online life has affected it, and some of the words used to describe different types of involvement. Among these are astroturfing, clicktivism, hacktivism and slacktivism, the last of which

was formed by blending slacker with activism. Whereas activism is all about active engagement, slacktivists prefer to limit their involvement to the bare minimum. . . .

Given the ease of manipulating online information, underhanded tactics are inevitable. One technique that has attracted a lot of attention is astroturfing. This extends a familiar metaphor: since AstroTurf is fake grass, astroturfing is a fake grass roots campaign. It’s a deceptive form of advocacy that appears as a groundswell of passionate opinion, but is often secretly financed by corporations or other well-organised groups with a vested interest in swaying political policy or the public mood. [more]

You can click here to read previous round-ups of my posts for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, or here to go directly to the archive. (The second link is also in the “Elsewhere” box in the top right-hand corner of this blog.)

Comments, whether here or there, are always welcome.


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