Dictionary matters

March 24, 2017

I have dictionaries on the brain – more than usual – having just read and reviewed Kory Stamper’s book Word by Word. So it’s a good time to share a couple of posts I wrote for the blog at Macmillan Dictionary, which, incidentally, underwent a makeover recently.

The first post has a self-explanatory title: What does it mean when a word is not in the dictionary?

No English dictionary includes every single word – not even the Oxford English Dictionary. . . . Nor does the OED – or any other dictionary – include every word from the many sublanguages, dialects, and specialist lingos: this would be an impossible task. Macmillan Dictionary, by contrast, includes historical words only if they’re still in common use. And because it’s primarily a learner’s dictionary, it forgoes obsolete usages altogether. Macmillan’s focus on contemporary language means that one of its strengths is how quickly it keeps up with the changes and new additions to English vocabulary.

The example I focus on is snowflake, in its non-weather-related sense, because it’s common enough that people are encountering it regularly and looking it up, but it’s also new enough that it’s not yet listed in most dictionaries.

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A world of English at Macmillan Dictionary looks at an ongoing series from Macmillan called Real World English. This is a set of videos and blog posts about dialectal variation in English vocabulary and pragmatics, especially between UK and US English in a work context.

One of the motifs of the Real World English series is that these varieties of English have different standards and conventions. None of them are necessarily more correct than any others, but what’s normal and obvious in one dialect may be obscure or ambiguous in another. Being aware of how various Englishes diverge in usage can help us improve our understanding of, and communication with, people who speak another variety. This is an increasingly important skill in work and social situations, now that telecommunications and internet technology have made the world smaller. We often communicate with people on several different continents every day, especially if we use social media.

The post goes on to discuss the range of dialects featured in the series or in other resources on the website, including Brazilian English, Indian English, Philippine English, and so on. You can also read older posts at my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.


Book review: ‘Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries’ by Kory Stamper

March 21, 2017

Dictionaries occupy a unique cultural space straddling invisibility and authority. Those of us with a keen interest in words, be it professional, hobbyist, or obsessive to the point of mania, now and then ponder the mystique of these works of reference. Who writes them? What drew them to the work? How were they trained? Who decides what to include? How, exactly, do dictionaries come to be?

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, answers all the questions you might care to ask a lexicographer. It casts a coruscating light on the never-ending work of a dictionary – ‘a human document, constantly being compiled, proofread, and updated by actual, living, awkward people’ – and also, necessarily, on words themselves in all their strange, slippery wonder.

Each chapter in Word by Word is named after a word that serves as a base from which Stamper explores deeper, broader issues of lexicography and of the English language, such as its history, politics, and essential mutability. For example, ‘Irregardless: On Wrong Words’ examines variety in English negation and the social status of dialects. Stamper’s initial aversion to irregardless, this ‘harbinger of linguistic doom’, softens through exposure and investigation to the point where she becomes ‘America’s foremost “irregardless” apologist’.

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Dictionary style labels: a Macmillan series

November 11, 2016

For my column at Macmillan Dictionary, I’ve been looking at its style labels – supplementary terms like ‘humorous’, ‘formal,’ ‘offensive’, and ‘literary’ that are not part of a word’s definition but lend useful detail about it, especially for English-language learners:

Style labels help us become more familiar with the many varieties of English, especially if we’re learning the language. They enable us to use English more effectively and to interpret it more accurately when we hear or see it.

It’s a three-part series.

Part I looks at the formal–informal axis, with particular focus on the Scottish word bawbag. @MacDictionary’s tweet about bawbag – which stressed its ‘very informal’ status – made news headlines a few months ago.

Part II looks at the ‘offensive’ label, including the euphemism treadmill that sees terms like retarded go from acceptable to taboo, and words like lunatic that are now in a grey area. I also show how geographical and social factors can affect a word’s offensiveness.

Part III looks at other common labels, such as ‘spoken’, ‘journalism’, and ‘old-fashioned’. One interesting pair for pragmatics is the ‘showing approval’ and ‘showing disapproval’ labels. I also explain why Macmillan does not use the ‘obsolete’ label often found in dictionaries.

All my older posts can be viewed in my Macmillan Dictionary archive. Thanks for reading.


Green’s Dictionary of Slang is now available online

October 12, 2016

Whenever I had a query about slang (and I’ve had many), or felt like a random trawl through the underbelly of language (which was often), my first port of call, traditionally, was Chambers Dictionary of Slang by Jonathon Green. I have several slang dictionaries for various countries or lexical domains, but CDoS was the most generally useful. It has since been superseded: instead of CDoS I now turn to GDoS.

gdos-greens-dictionary-of-slang-logoGreen’s Dictionary of Slang is the culmination of a life’s work for Green. First published in print as a three-volume behemoth in 2010, to awards and rave reviews, it now emerges in digital form with about 30% ‘revised, augmented and generally improved’. I’ve been beta-testing the website and can report it is a beautiful thing, vast and wondrous, filthy and fabulous, endlessly diverting and eye-opening.

Today, thanks to sterling work by web developer David P. Kendal, sees the official launch of Green’s Dictionary of Slang Online.

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How do you pronounce ‘eschew’?

February 19, 2016

Eschew ‘avoid, shun, refrain from’ is a formal word of Germanic origin that entered English via Old French in the 15thC. It’s not one I use often, still less speak aloud, but a brief exchange on Twitter got me wondering how people pronounce it.

Let’s do a quick poll before I say any more. It simplifies the range of vowel sounds in the unstressed first syllable, so ignore any small difference there for now. I want to focus on the consonant cluster and what we might call the shoe, chew and skew forms.

If you’ve never said eschew or are unsure how to, go with whichever one you think you would say.

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The semantic scope of ‘Martian’

June 24, 2015

When the horror comedy film Slither came out in 2006, I thought it far too derivative, with major plot points and big reveals rehashed from ideas I’d seen before – in David Cronenberg’s Shivers and Rabid, Brian Yuzna’s Society, and the entire first half of George Romero’s career.

But there were things I liked about it too, so I felt I owed it another look. Second time around I appreciated its queasy charms and lively sense of fun much more, and as an unexpected bonus it contains a brief semantic dispute.

This takes place in a car as our heroes escape from unspeakable weirdness and try to figure out what’s going on. Slight spoilers follow in the subtitled images below. Some dialogue is repeated here to accommodate editing cuts and show who’s speaking. If strong language bothers you, flee now while you can.

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Link love: language (61)

January 28, 2015

It’s a couple of months since I did a language linkfest, so before it gets out of hand again here’s a selection of linguistic and word-related items I’ve enjoyed over the last while.

A dictionary of hip-hop slang.

On the history and pragmatics of ping.

The future will see fewer, and simpler, languages. (Or will it?)

The global language network.

Spelling reformers get the wrong end of the stick.

Geniorum octopodes? A pedantic guide to borrowed inflections.

The Ling Space: videos introducing linguistic topics.

How old is the nickname Mike?

Using strikethrough for communication.

Celebrating the survival of aboriginal languages.

26 language writers on their favourite portmanteau words.

What are the best things to use as a bookmark?

Bae is an adjective and a verb now.

Did Celtic languages influence English grammar?

How the language of TV shows sheds light on their structure.

If you need another reason not to listen to Nevile Gwynne.

How and why does the English language change?

The language of convenience stores.

Not all likes are alike.

A short history of the pilcrow (¶).

A short history of the octothorpe (#).

Feminism and the language of football.

13 words of the year from other countries.

Research suggests bilingualism reduces essentialist beliefs.

Authors protest the omission of nature words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary.

Signalling the intent to signal.

For crying in the sink, let’s euphemize!

Hawaiian pidgin word hapa (half-white, half-Asian) has ameliorated.

Why did people start peeving about “book entitled”?

Behind the scenes at Merriam-Webster.

Bringing Webster’s unabridged dictionary to market in 1864.

Wine words and their history in Australian English.

The case for dropping the term pathogen.

The hidden language of ~the tilde~.

Eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious.

Hashtagification.

Men, women, and language:

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Want more? See the language links archive for 60 prior installments.