Dictionary updates and etymological commutes

September 13, 2013

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about digital dictionaries and everyday etymologies.

The dictionary recently underwent a major update. News media tend to cover this by focusing on new words, either through force of habit, to drum up controversy, or because they think it’s the best way to interest people in a story about lexicography. So I wanted to look not at shiny new entries but at changes to existing ones.

Updating … A new version of your dictionary is now available takes technology as its theme:

Digital culture grows and mutates at a fierce pace, and a modern reference needs to reflect this in its definitions and example sentences.

Sometimes the alterations are subtle but significant. If you look up camera, for instance, sense 1 says it may be “part of a mobile device”. Several years ago this would not have been so, and several years before that it wouldn’t even have made sense. Macmillan Dictionary now also specifies analogue camera, one that “uses film rather than electronic signals”, where once that would have been implicit.

I also discuss updates to words like calendar, curate, tap, and gesture.

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The mutable route of ‘commute’ sketches the curiously winding history of this familiar Americanism,* and how divorced it has become – for some of us at least – from its origins as a verb meaning “exchange” or “interchange” (cf. mutation, transmute), and later “make less severe” (a sense still current in law):

The “exchange” sense of commute allowed it to be used in various ways relating to financial transaction, including the act of combining several payments into one. So when people began buying season tickets for trains and streetcars in 19th century US, they called them commutation tickets. From here it was a short stop to commuter – at first “one who holds a commutation ticket” – and to commute, referring to this mode of regular travel to and from work.

Only after developments in mass transportation systems, then, did the familiar sense of commute arise to fill a lexical niche.

You can read the rest here, or visit the archive for my older posts.

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* Though it’s perhaps less familiar as an Americanism.

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