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’.


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.

Fixer-upper(er) and funnerer reduplication

June 22, 2015

My recent post on ludic language has prompted me to dig up and rework some old notes on playful reduplication in English. I’ll begin with a short comic verse by author and editor William Rossa Cole:

I thought I’d win the spelling bee

And get right to the top,

But I started to spell ‘banana,’

And I didn’t know when to stop.

The poem’s title, ‘Banananananananana’, as well as underlining the joke draws our attention to how unusual a spelling banana is. Once you start the string of alternating a’s and n’s that constitute the bulk of the word, it’s easy to imagine absent-mindedly overshooting the mark, stuck in a groove like Langton’s Ant on its endless highway.

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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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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.

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.

Grammar and sticklers

October 5, 2011

This is a recap of my posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog over the last few weeks. Looking at them together, I notice a recurring theme of objecting to people objecting to things there’s nothing wrong with.

First, in “Hopefully you won’t object to this”, I take issue with the AP Stylebook’s continuing denial that hopefully can mean “Let’s hope” or “I hope” or “It is hoped”. (It says the word means only “in a hopeful manner”.)

I use hopefully both ways, and I like having this option. Declaring that it’s wrong to do so is, frankly, a lost cause: a futile attempt to deny or halt a natural drift in language. . . .

Adverbs have been used to qualify entire clauses and sentences for centuries. Clearly, it’s a useful feature, one I’ve made use of in this very sentence and elsewhere in this post. In the second half of the twentieth century, the occurrence of certain sentence adverbs grew rapidly, according to Robert Burchfield in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (actually and basically are often criticised too). This might explain the concurrent surge in objections, but it doesn’t justify them. [more]

Business in cyber” is about the history and spread of the productive cyber– prefix, including a report from writer William Gibson on how he coined cyberspace.

The cyber– prefix has become synonymous with computers, particularly the Internet, but its original meaning is somewhat different, and it might easily not have risen to productive prominence at all.

The first cyber word in English was cybernetics, introduced in 1948 by the mathematician Norbert Wiener in a book by that title. It comes from the Greek kybernētēs, meaning steersman, guide, governor, and was originally used to describe the comparative study of control and communication systems in machines and living creatures.

Cyber– was soon adopted in other technological fields and came to have futuristic connotations: of exciting advances in how we communicate, and of new ways of being and interacting. [more]

Macmillan Dictionary Blog recently shared a video of David Crystal talking about how the internet is changing language. He says the technology has not changed English very much, but there are some noteworthy developments – new styles, in particular.

These observations serve as an introduction to “Slang keeps on swinging”, in which I write that since the arrival of the internet, grammar and spelling

have not mutated – though variant forms and new styles are now more visible – and the common vocabulary has grown only slightly, relative to its total size. Slang, however, is always an active frontier. . . . Most of it fades quickly, but there is always a chance that it won’t, particularly if it captures something vital about a particular culture, subculture, or time.

Innovation in language, just as anywhere else, is a sign of health. The slang condemned by strict linguistic conservatives, far from indicating a decline, rather suggests an interest in language and a creative enthusiasm that propels it in new directions. [more]

Last up: “A foolish consistency” quotes Emerson out of context to discuss bogus grammar rules (split infinitives, prepositions at the end of sentences…), usage myths (decimate, aggravate…), and the etymological fallacy

that a word should or must mean what it meant originally or long ago, and maybe in another language altogether. The fallacy does not take account of linguistic change, and rests on the false idea that words cannot or should not change their meanings.

These restrictions have no basis in grammatical correctness, yet they have survived for generations, passed on from teacher to pupil or stickler to stickler-in-waiting. . . . Correctness is primarily a matter of convention, and conventions change. Consistency should be applied only as far as common sense carries it. [more]

Your thoughts are welcome here or at the individual posts. For more, see my full archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

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.