Early English dictionaries, such as A Table Alphabeticall (1604), did not aim to be thorough. Instead they defined only difficult and specialised vocabulary – the assumption being that ordinary, familiar words did not need explaining. There are practical benefits to learning difficult words, and they often have aesthetic and intellectual appeal too, whether they are ‘lost’ words or simply outside the everyday trade of language.
Children in particular can be delighted by weird and wonderful words. And children in particular will lap up The Dictionary of Difficult Words, a new book written by lexicographer Jane Solomon and illustrated by Louise Lockhart. It’s aimed principally at readers aged 7–12, but this is a publication that will brighten anyone’s bookshelf. It would be very much at home in school libraries too.
Before opening the book, I was struck by how attractive it is as an object. The large, slim hardback has an embossed title and beautiful texture on the cover. The design throughout is fun and expressive, with multiple drawings or collages on every page. The whole package is artfully coloured and styled, with lexical and graphic marvels galore.
In standard English the primary meaning of the adjective bold is ‘brave, courageous, unafraid, daring’. This can shade into a related, negative sense of impudence, brazenness, or presumption. Another common sense is ‘visibly prominent, distinct, strong, or clear’, often associated with lines or colour. For nuance, compare the definitions by M-W, AHD, Oxford, Macmillan, Cambridge, and Collins.
When I first learned the word, though, it was in none of these senses: it meant ‘naughty, mischievous’. If I heard someone (including myself) described as bold, it meant they were misbehaving – or maybe being playful in a cheeky way. This is a very common usage in Irish English but absent from standard English; there’s no mention of it in the OED.
The sense is so intrinsic to the word in Ireland that when I read this line in Swing Time by Zadie Smith last week, I had to read it twice to be sure of the intent:
It’s often assumed that when babies say mama or papa (or similar) they are addressing or referring to their mother or father explicitly. Not so. In a 2012 post on mama/papa words around the world, I wrote:
Before I knew anything about language acquisition, I assumed that babies making these utterances were referring to their parents. But this interpretation is backwards: mama/papa words just happen to be the easiest word-like sounds for babies to make. The sounds came first – as experiments in vocalization – and parents adopted them as pet names for themselves.
These pet names, or nursery forms, in turn gave rise to our grown-up terms like mother and father – or rather, their ancient predecessors – according to Roman Jakobson’s 1959 paper ‘Why “Mama” and “Papa”?’ (PDF). The striking correspondence of nursery forms cross-lingually can be seen in a table from Larry Trask’s ‘Where do mama/papa words come from?’ (PDF):
The Great Language Muster is a project collecting data from hundreds of languages in an effort to update our knowledge of these and other kinship terms – how we address and refer to parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It’s being run by UCL linguistics professor Andrew Nevins, whose research assistant Evan DeFrancesco emailed me about it.
‘Precious Artifact’ is a short story by Philip K. Dick that I read recently in the collection The Golden Man (Methuen, 1981). I won’t get into the story here, or the book, except to lend context to a phrase he coined for it. But if you’re averse to mild spoilers, skip ahead a little.
The phrase is introduced when the protagonist, based on Mars, is preparing to return to Earth, or Terra as it’s called in the story:
Milt Biskle said, “I want you to do something for me. I feel too tired, too—” He gestured. “Or depressed, maybe. Anyhow I’d like you to make arrangements for my gear, including my wug-plant, to be put aboard a transport returning to Terra.”
Milt’s singling out the wug-plant is significant both narratively (for reasons I’ll ignore) and emotionally: he’s attached to it to the point of calling it a pet. Later, on ‘Terra’, he finds it has not prospered in the new climate (‘my wug-plant isn’t thriving’), and soon afterwards ‘he found his Martian wug-plant dead’.
But wug-plant is most significant linguistically. Those of you with a background or interest in linguistics will know why, but for the benefit of other readers I’ll explain briefly.
The rise of quotative like (I was like, What?) has been swift and striking since it emerged a few decades ago. No word stays exactly the same, but the changes and extensions to like have been more noticeable than most on account of its versatility, popularity, and prominence.
So what will happen to like in the future? More change, if these tweets are anything to go by:
@LangMaverick friend's 4yo just asked "what's Ernie like?" After some offers of attributes etc we realized she meant "what's he saying"
If you click on Sarah’s first tweet (or its date, in some browsers) you can read more follow-up discussion.
I would have been confused by what the child meant, and I’d probably have exhausted her patience long before figuring it out. The fact that Sarah Shulist is a linguistic anthropologist and Alexandra D’Arcy is a sociolinguist (who has done research on like) may have helped them infer the child’s intent more quickly in each case.
Philip K. Dick’s pleasurably paranoid science-fiction novel Time Out of Joint (1959) has a passage that shows the ingenuity of children in using language to manipulate perceived reality (something Dick himself did with brio in his writing). Sammy, a boy working on a makeshift radio, needs to get its crude antenna somewhere high:
Returning to the house he climbed the stairs to the top floor. One window opened on to the flat part of the roof; he unlatched that window and in a moment he was scrambling out onto the roof.
From downstairs his mother called, ‘Sammy, you’re not going out on the roof, are you?’
‘No,’ he yelled back. I am out, he told himself, making in his mind a fine distinction.
I imagine most kids, once their command of language is sufficiently sophisticated, play similar semantic games for short-term gain or amusement. The same kind of hyper-literalness is the basis for a lot of childhood humour (e.g., ‘Do you have the time?’ ‘Yes.’). I like PKD’s understated use of it which puts us in Sammy’s head for a moment.