‘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]

The Hot News or After Perfect in Irish English

March 14, 2016

A characteristic feature of English grammar in Ireland is the so-called after perfect, also known as the hot news perfect or the immediate perfective. Popular throughout Ireland yet unfamiliar to most users of English elsewhere, it’s an idiosyncratic structure that emerged by calquing Irish grammar onto English. It has also undergone some curious changes over time.

The after perfect normally expresses perfect tense, using after to indicate that something occurred in the recent or immediate past, relative to the time of speaking or reference. It uses a form of the verb be, followed by after, then usually a verb in the progressive tense. BE + AFTER + [VERB]ING. I’m after meeting them means I met them a short time ago.

So I’m after summarising the after perfect. Now for some detail.

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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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Dreaming about words and raccoons

January 10, 2016

A dream I had during the week may be of passing linguistic interest.

A small group of people were speaking informally to each other. I was both one of them and not, in that way dreams have of detuning subjectivity. It wasn’t a group conversation but something more loose and staged, and most of the verbal content escapes me. The curious thing is that whenever someone said the word chiefly – which they did in most utterances – they gently threw a raccoon to the person they were speaking to. The raccoon didn’t seem to mind.

That’s pretty much it. The dream didn’t last long, but its contents were so memorably silly (and explicitly linguistic) that I mentioned it on Twitter when I got up. Writer Melissa Harrison suggested that it might have been connected to the raccoon that lost its candy floss – a story currently doing the quirky-news rounds.

Continuing her dream-detective work, Melissa asked if I’d used or read the word chiefly the day before, and I realised that I had (in a post for Strong Language, which I’ll write separately about later), and that I’d lingered on it a moment to make sure it was the right adverb. These real-world prompts for the dreamt material can’t be definitive, but they seem likely, especially the raccoon.

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