The Usage Panel is dead, long live the Usage Panel!

December 5, 2018

If you write (and you probably do), you’ll inevitably be unsure about English usage sometimes. Can refute mean ‘reject’? How should I use whom? Is expresso wrong? Is snuck? What’s the difference between militate and mitigate? Can they be singular? Can I say drive slow? Very unique? What does beg the question really mean?

The language has so many areas of dispute and confusion that we have to turn to authorities for the answer, and this raises – not begs – the questions of who these authorities are and why we should trust them. Last year, in an A–Z of English usage myths, I wrote:

We are (often to our detriment) a rule-loving species, uncomfortable with uncertainty and variation unless we resolve not to be. We defer to authority but are poor judges of what constitutes good varieties of it.

There is no official authority in English, despite occasional misguided attempts to create an Academy like in French. Some people, by virtue of their learning and trade, gain a measure of authority; they may be grammarians, linguists, editors, lexicographers, columnists, and so on. But they often disagree. Look up different usage manuals, dictionaries, or articles, and you’ll find plenty of mutual dissent.

For those who want categorical answers to knotty questions of grammar, usage, or style, these discrepancies between experts can be frustrating, and may be dubiously resolved by picking one authority and sticking to it. For the linguistically curious who don’t need a quick answer before a deadline hits, these grey areas can be fascinating, especially when traced through history.

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Language change and the politics of accents

August 12, 2017

These are the topics of my latest posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. In Words in constant motion, I write that every aspect of language use is subject to change, that this understandably unsettles some people, but that we can learn to live with it:

We may refuse to accept a new usage, especially if the change happens in our lifetime: Why can’t words stay as they are, with a fixed meaning and sound and use? Words here can be a substitute for deeper concerns. We tend to prefer when things are stable, and find instability disturbing.

The converse also applies. If we get on board with the fact that everything is in flux, it becomes easier to adjust to linguistic change instead of being automatically upset by it. It can be seen as a form of realism.

In The politics of accents, I examine a recent case of linguistic prejudice against a British politician that centred on her regional accent, and consider what motivates such a reaction:

Accents, like other aspects of language use, are sometimes a cynical excuse to judge other people – because they come from a particular area, are in a certain social class, or were educated to whatever level or not. Thus language becomes a tool for stereotypes, prejudice, tribal hostility, and often misogynistic abuse.

These attitudes reflect power differences in society. Nonstandard dialects are often wrongly associated with lack of intelligence, criminality, and other negative attributes. They’re even censured in schools because they are considered inferior.

One of Macmillan Dictionary’s busiest and most interesting features is its Open Dictionary, which relies on reader submissions of words and phrases previously absent from the dictionary. These entries, of course, are vetted and edited by lexicographers before being accepted (which many are not). Liz Potter wrote a helpful post on it last month: What’s the point of the Open Dictionary?

My full archive of posts for Macmillan is available here.


Dr Johnson’s House in London

June 2, 2017

On a recent trip to London I visited 17 Gough Square, better known as Dr Johnson’s House. Samuel Johnson compiled his great Dictionary of 1755 in this tall Georgian building, and I’ve always wanted to visit. As I’m currently writing a column on the subject (ish), the timing was apt.

On my way there I passed a Furnival Street and wondered if it was named after another lexicographer – but that Furnivall has two l’s in his name, so I guess not.

The house is ‘one of a very few of its age to survive in the City of London, and the only one of Johnson’s eighteen London homes to have done so’, Henry Hitchings writes in his terrific book Defining the World (aka Dr Johnson’s Dictionary). Here’s the plaque outside:

Circular plaque on the red-brick wall of 17 Gough Square. The plaque reads:

Upstairs, a stained-glass window of Johnson overlooks the square:

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Word frequency game

August 13, 2014

The Red Words Game from Macmillan Dictionary is a new and addictive bit of fun that tests your awareness of word frequencies. It’s named after a feature of the dictionary, the so-called red words and stars.

The idea is that the core vocabulary of English has 7500 ‘red words’, comprising 90% of the language in Macmillan’s huge general corpus.¹ Macmillan Dictionary gives red words special treatment, describing their grammar, collocations, register, and so on. Three-star words are the 2500 most common, two-star words are next, then one-star words.

To play the game you guess how many stars a random series of words have, for 90 seconds. I’ve been scoring 225–300, but to get more than 300 I’d need more luck and free time than I have at the moment. It’s just maddening enough to make you feel hard done by and want another go, like when I had 250 points with 30 seconds to go and got every answer wrong after that.

There are bonus points for fast answers, so don’t dally. The tricky bit is not letting the answers distract you (implication has three stars, anonymous just one!?).² Watch out too for grammatical class, which appears under the word, as sometimes it will affect your answer. For example, the verb find has three stars but the noun has just one.

If you want to pass a few entertaining minutes, go play. It’s even subliminally educational.

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¹ Link and description updated for accuracy.

² I suspect anonymous will gain a star or two when more recent data are included in the categorisation.


Unlocking the language with Robert Burchfield

March 14, 2014

Unlocking the English Language by Robert Burchfield (Faber & Faber, 1989) had been sitting unread on my shelf for far too long, so I let it jump the queue and am very glad that I did. For readers interested in lexicography and word lore it’s a goldmine, with fascinating facts, anecdotes and esoterica on every page.

Robert Burchfield - Unlocking the English Language (faber & faber 1989)Burchfield was a New Zealand-born philologist who spent much of his life working as a lexicographer in England. From 1957–86 he edited the new four-volume Supplement to the OED, and later wrote an admirable third edition of Fowler, among other works. He championed inclusivity when it came to taboo words and global varieties of English.

Like his earlier book The English Language, Unlocking…, though short, is a rich and expansive work. The first four chapters are based on his T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, the next eight a variety of essays on grammar, vocabulary, and dictionary-making. He assesses grammars as recent as CGEL and as old as Ben Jonson’s; his comments on the latter show his forthrightness and penchant for metaphor:

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Foclóir: A new English–Irish dictionary

January 23, 2013

A quick follow-up on a tweet – or should I say tvuít – from yesterday: Foclóir, a new English–Irish dictionary, has just gone online. It looks great; alongside its translations it offers detailed grammatical data, example sentences, and sound files from native Irish speakers.

The sound files are a particular treat, offered in the three major dialects of Connacht, Munster and Ulster Irish. Vocabulary-wise, although the dictionary is far from complete, there’s already more than enough to reward repeat visits:

Focloir English Irish dictionary - headword blogThe dictionary is being published on a phased basis, and the full content won’t be online until end-2014. The entries published in January 2013 consist of approximately 30% of the eventual content, however this range covers approximately 80% of general English usage.

Foclóir was created by Foras na Gaeilge and is based on the Dante lexical database. Preparation of a print edition will begin in 2015, once all the dictionary material has been published online. I’m making it my primary internet reference for English–Irish translation.

[via RTÉ News]


Crowd-sourced dictionaries and rare portmanteaus

October 25, 2012

I have a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Links and excerpts now follow.

Dictionary signals vs. noise looks at the business of crowd-sourcing in dictionary-making. (Crowd-sourcing means outsourcing a task to the general public or another unspecified group.) Some recent discussion about this might give the impression that the field of lexicography is destined for an Urban Dictionary–style makeover. This won’t happen.

It seems to me more a matter of dictionaries finding different ways to integrate public input, and this is something they’ve always done to varying degrees.

Urban Dictionary is an extreme case in that its entries are entirely user-generated; it is therefore best consulted with a certain scepticism. This is not to say UD is unhelpful: it’s sometimes the best or even the only place to find a plausible explanation for contemporary slang, especially the more faddish or explicit sort. But unless several definitions converge on a sense, a pinch of salt or a confirming source tends to be necessary.

For more of my thoughts on Urban Dictionary, and why professionally curated dictionaries are in no danger of displacement, you can read the rest here.

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Lesser spotted portmanteau words briefly introduces the history and structure of portmanteau words, aka blends, before coining a few fanciful examples (which turned out to be unoriginal, but anyway):

Blending is a common source of new words because it’s fun – a kind of language play – and relatively straightforward. So when people neologise, whether whimsically or with more serious intent, they often coin portmanteau words. It’s an easy way to combine two ideas: just think of a word and blend it with another. From dictionary, for example, we might conjure a contradictionary: a dictionary of paradoxes; and a benedictionary: a dictionary of blessings.

Many such coinages are destined to be short-lived or remain limited to certain sublanguages. Others, as we’ve seen, eventually enter our everyday vocabulary.

The post was prompted by a unusual sense of portmanteau word which I encountered in an old book on Beethoven. You can find out about that – and ponder whether banoffee pie has peaked – at the original post.

Comments here or there are welcome, and if you’re new to this and inclined to read more, there’s always my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.