Blatherskite and Shakespearean peeving

July 13, 2016

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, both in a historical vein. First up, Blethering about blatherskite explores a colourful term for nonsense (or for someone talking nonsense):

Blatherskite is a compound in two parts. It was formed by joining blather – a noun and verb referring to long-winded, empty talk – with skite, a Scottish insult with ancestry in an Old Norse word for excrement (skite is related to shit).

Macmillan Dictionary labels blatherskite as American and informal. There’s no surprise about the second label: the word doesn’t appear often in print, occurring more in vernacular use. But since blatherskite originates in Scots, it’s curious that it should have become a chiefly American word.

The post goes on to explain how it crossed the Atlantic and discusses its phonetic suitability.


As You Dislike It considers the word very as an intensifier – a usage that prompted some protest when it first began to spread:

Very was originally used to indicate that something was true or real, as in the phrase ‘he was a veri prophett’ in William Tyndale’s Bible of 1526. This meaning, though less fashionable now, is still used, and its semantic root is apparent in words like verity, veracity, and verify. Only later did people start using the word as an intensifier.

This emerging, emphatic use of very became extremely common in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare not only uses the word this way, but in Romeo and Juliet (2.4.28–32) he draws attention to conservative attitudes towards this change . . .

If you’re thinking of the parallel with literally – in both semantic development and conservative backlash – you wouldn’t be alone. I look at these and other aspects in the rest of the post.

Older articles can be read at my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Up to your oxters in Gaelic expressions

June 4, 2016

Up to your oxters (or my oxters, etc.) is a phrase I often heard growing up in County Mayo in Ireland. Oxter means ‘armpit’, normally, so up to your oxters means ‘up to your armpits’ – whether literally or figuratively. You could be up to your oxters in a river or in housework.

The word is used in dialects in Ireland, Scotland, England, and the Isle of Man. As well as signifying the armpit, it can refer to the underside of the upper arm more generally, to the fold of the arm when bent against the body, and to the armhole of a coat or jacket.

Oxter also has various verb senses. The OED lists these as: ‘to support by the arm, walk arm in arm with; to take or carry under the arm; to embrace, put one’s arm around’. It dates the earliest example to Robert Burns in 1796: ‘The Priest he was oxter’d, the Clerk he was carried.’ The noun is centuries older.

stan carey - scariff Irish seed savers - tall grass up to your oxters

Tall grass up to your oxters, at Irish Seed Savers in Scariff, County Clare

The etymology of oxter is surprisingly complicated, but the word is of clearly Germanic cast. From the OED:

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Otto Jespersen on language: ‘Everything is dynamic’

May 26, 2016

Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin by Danish linguist Otto Jespersen appeared almost a century ago, in 1922. It has inevitably dated in some respects – e.g., occasional sexism and ethnocentrism – but in linguistic outlook it feels for the most part thoroughly modern, compared with some commentary on language change and grammar even today.

In March I read the elegant hardback copy (Unwin Brothers, 1959) of Language I picked up in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop last year. A few excerpts follow, more or less in the order they appear in the book.

The first four chapters, comprising Book I, offer an illuminating history of linguistics as a science. They also feature this eloquent diversion on ‘correctness’:

The normative way of viewing language is fraught with some great dangers which can only be avoided through a comprehensive knowledge of the historic development of languages and of the general conditions of linguistic psychology. Otherwise, the tendency everywhere is to draw too narrow limits for what is allowable or correct. In many cases one form, or one construction, only is recognized, even where two or more are found in actual speech; the question which is to be selected as the only good form comes to be decided too often by individual fancy or predilection, where no scientific tests can yet be applied, and thus a form may often be proscribed which from a less narrow point of view might have appeared just as good as, or even better than, the one preferred in the official grammar or dictionary. In other instances, where two forms were recognized, the grammarian wanted to give rules for their discrimination, and sometimes on the basis of a totally inadequate induction he would establish nice distinctions not really warranted by actual usage – distinctions which subsequent generations had to learn at school with the sweat of their brows and which were often considered most important in spite of their intrinsic insignificance.

If you haven’t read Jespersen, the passage gives a fair sense of his style: formal in a lightly scholarly way, but infused with lively vernacular (‘the sweat of their brows’) and altogether accessible. He writes long sentences that build to long paragraphs, but his care for logic means the complexity is noticed chiefly in its appreciation; he has a talent too for the pithy phrase.

Discussing Wilhelm von Humboldt, Jespersen zeroes in on the fundamental dynamism of language, and the related fact that speech is primary:

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‘Answer’, a swear in plain sight

May 23, 2016

Some familiar words have etymologies right in front of us yet apt to stay hidden. Breakfast breaks a fast, the vowels disguising it well. Remorse is ‘biting back’, your conscience gnawing at you. Semicolon is a folk etymology of samey colon, on account of its resemblance to the other mark.

geoffrey hughes - swearing a social history of foul language, oaths and profanity in englishOK, I made that one up.

I read a nice account of another such etymology in Geoffrey Hughes’s Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanities in English (1991). The book packs considerable detail, scholarly insight and amusing lists into its 280 pages, so I’ll follow its lead and keep this post short.1

In a section on ‘numinous words: charms, spells and runes’, Hughes writes:

One of the most dramatic instances of the use of a malign spell in Anglo-Saxon literature is wrought by the monster Grendel [in Beowulf].2 Described as one of the evil tribe of Cain and an enemy of the Lord, he puts a spell on the weapons of his victims, the Scyldings. The key verb in the text at this point is, fascinatingly, forsworen, literally ‘forsworn’, indicating that the verb forswerian could mean ‘to hinder by swearing; to render powerless by incantation; to make useless by magic’.

Hughes goes on to relate other examples of such word-magic from the Life of St Wilfrid and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Then he quotes from The Battle of Maldon and picks up the -swear- thread again:

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English Dialect Dictionary Online

May 1, 2016

Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (EDD) is a monumental work by any standard. Published in six volumes from 1898–1905, with detailed entries across 4505 double-columned pages, it’s all the more impressive given that its author was largely self-taught and could not read until his mid-teens. (He described himself as ‘an idle man all my life’.)

joseph wright english dialect dictionaryAfter studying philology in Germany, Wright began his pioneering work in English dialectology, aiming in the EDD to include ‘the complete vocabulary of dialect words’ in use since 1700. The Oxford Companion to the English Language says ‘nothing of comparable breadth or depth of dialect scholarship has been published in Britain since’.

The EDD is available in various formats at the Internet Archive, but those hefty PDFs can be unwieldy. The good news – great news, for word lovers – is that the book has finally been digitised and is now free and ready to use ‘by all private people, researchers, students and amateurs’. Just accept the terms of use – respect the EDD Online’s special copyright – and away you go.

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Link love: language (66)

April 27, 2016

I haven’t done language links in a while, so I’ll share this set before it grows to an even more unwieldy size. The series is a sample of the links I share more regularly on Twitter, plus a few I haven’t. Happy reading.

Upside-down N.

A typeface made of trees.

How to make text look futuristic.

The language faculty that wasn’t.

The case for Black over African American.

A book known to the world only in translation.

Why does Britain have such bizarre place names?

Nouns that become verbs act as vivid linguistic shortcuts.

Gorillas compose happy songs that they hum during meals.

We don’t just see the world differently – we hear it differently too.

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How to pronounce ‘Celtic’

March 17, 2016

I don’t normally mark St. Patrick’s Day in any linguistic fashion, but this year I have a short article at Mental Floss about how to pronounce Celtic – is it /ˈsɛltɪk/ ‘Seltic’ or /ˈkɛltɪk/ ‘Keltic’?

Muiredach's High Cross, Monasterboice, County Louth, IrelandIn my own usage it’s both, depending on the context, but there seems to be a lot of uncertainty and debate over which is the ‘correct’ pronunciation. So I hope my article goes some way towards resolving the matter. Here’s a excerpt:

Celtic pronounced “Keltic” is an outlier in English phonology. Nearly every other English word beginning ce- has a soft-c sound: cedar, ceiling, cell, cement, cent, cereal, certain, cesspit, and so on (cello, with its “ch-” onset, is another anomaly). So it shouldn’t surprise us that “Seltic” was once overwhelmingly the norm. The now-dominant pronunciation “Keltic” is a modern innovation.

You can read the rest at Mental Floss, and feel free to leave a comment either there or below.

[photo by Adriao]