50 lost words from the OED

April 17, 2019

Ammon Shea loves dictionaries – especially the OED. He loves the OED so much, he read it – the whole thing, in its second edition: 21,730 pages with around 59 million words. It took him a year, full-time, and he wrote a book about it, titled Reading the OED (2008).

This is not a review, but it is a recommendation. Reading the OED will charm anyone who’s into dictionaries and words, especially unusual ones, or anyone curious about unusual hobbies and passions-slash-afflictions. (I did review Shea’s 2014 book Bad English, an entertaining historical snapshot of the English usage wars.)

Book cover of "Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages". The cover shows a man lying on his back on the grass with his hands crossed on his belly and a volume of the OED open on his face. He's probably asleep.When I said Shea loves dictionaries, I meant he really, really loves them. (This repetition of really is an example of epizeuxis, which is defined below.) Before the book came out, he moved house and brought 45 boxes: dictionaries filled 41 of them. As well as the 20-volume second edition of the OED, he owns the 13-volume 1933 edition, the four-volume supplement, the two- and ten-volume Shorter OEDs, the condensed-type edition, and ‘a random single-volume edition’. ‘Each has its own usefulness,’ he assures us. Certainly these things are relative, but I don’t doubt him for an instant.

So what was it like to read the biggest, most celebrated dictionary ever compiled – ‘the most coveted and desirable book in the world’, as Oliver Sacks wrote? ‘It is resolutely, obstinately, and unapologetically exhaustive,’ writes Shea. ‘These qualities make it both a tremendous joy to read at some times and unbearably boring at others.’

How boring? Consider the un- prefix:

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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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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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‘Like’ is an infix now, which is un-like-believably innovative

June 16, 2018

Like has undergone radical developments in modern English. It can function as a hedge (‘I’ll be there in like an hour’), a discourse particle (‘This like serves a pragmatic function’), and a sentence adverb (‘It’s common in Ireland, like’). These and other non-standard usages are frequently criticised, but they’re probably older than critics think.

More recent is the so-called quotative like (‘I’m like, Whoa!’), also often disparaged. This became widely established impressively fast and is leading to some remarkable usages in younger generations: children saying things like ‘What’s Ernie like?’ to mean ‘What’s Ernie saying?’

So some uses of like are emerging right now, spreading through younger speech communities. In episode 278 of Australia’s Talk the Talk podcast, guest Alexandra D’Arcy – a linguistics professor who literally wrote the book on like – says that while she might say ‘at like the same time’, her son can say ‘at the like same time’, which is not in her grammar at all. It’s a subtle but striking difference.

It gets better. The latest novel use to which like is being put is as an infix. Infixes are a pretty small set in English, so a new one is a genuine surprise, linguistically. In some ways it is unlikeprecedented.

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Margaret Atwood’s Virago suffixes

December 9, 2017

Margaret Atwood has a short essay in A Virago Keepsake to Celebrate Twenty Years of Publishing, one of twenty contributions to this slim and enjoyable volume from 1993.

In the essay, ‘Dump Bins and Shelf Strips’, Atwood describes her introduction to Virago Press in the mid-1970s when it occupied ‘a single room in a crumbling building on one of the grubbier streets in Soho’. To reach it you had to climb ‘several flights of none-too-clean stairs’, past ‘a lot of men in raincoats hanging around’.

The following passage, completing the climb, is notable for several reasons, one of which is the variable suffixation:

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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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