Jiving with the Cheshire cat

November 19, 2015

I’ve a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First, Does a jive jibe with a gibe? attempts to disentangle a knotty congregation of homophones and near-homophones (including gybe, not mentioned in the title), and to explain what lies behind their frequent confusion:

Another common use of the verb jibe is to indicate agreement: ‘if two things jibe, they agree or contain similar information’. Often followed by with, it’s synonymous with match or tally. If you’re familiar with this usage, you might say my description jibes with your understanding of it. Sometimes jive or gibe are used instead, but neither spelling is standard here.

The (mis)use of jive for jibe ‘agree, correspond’ is common, perhaps motivated by metaphor: the idea of two things jiving (i.e., swing-dancing) together is a coherent analogy for harmony. The strong phonetic likeness also contributes to the confusion, with just the similar-sounding bilabial /b/ and labiodental /v/ differentiating a minimal pair.


john tenniel cheshire cat grinning in alice's adventures in wonderlandNext is my post Why do we ‘grin like a Cheshire cat’?, on the obscure origins of this popular phrase. It continues my series for Macmillan on the language of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, a book the publisher introduced to the world 150 years ago:

That the phrase’s origin is unknown has led to some interesting speculation. Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice, notes two possibilities: that it derives from grinning lions painted on the signs of inns in Cheshire – where Carroll grew up – or that it comes from a tradition of Cheshire cheeses being moulded into the shape of grinning cats, or marked that way.

Graeme Donald’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase finds the latter hypothesis ‘suspect’ because of the ‘very crumbly texture’ of the cheese in question. He cites Eric Partridge’s suggestion that Cheshire here is ‘a corruption of cheeser’, but doesn’t think cats like cheese enough to make this etymology likely.

I note a couple of other possibilities and also briefly discuss the Cat’s mystique in Carroll’s story. Older posts can be read in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

Afterlives of words and birds

October 22, 2015

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Words change, and that’s OK looks at a new series by Macmillan on word use and language change, and concludes that – despite what language cranks would have you believe – etymology is not the boss of meaning:

This month Macmillan Dictionary introduced its Real Vocabulary series, which assesses word use based on the evidence of usage rather than myth, hearsay, and pet preference. In a video about awesome, for example, Scott Thornbury points to the Dictionary’s secondary meaning  for the word, which defines it as ‘extremely good’, labels it ‘informal’, and says it is ‘used mainly by young people’. This supplies enough information and context to understand the word’s recent extension, and is infinitely more helpful than complaining about it or rejecting it as wrong.


john tenniel engraving of dodo, alice's adventures in wonderland by lewis carrollIn The dodo is dead, long live the dodo, I reflect on dodo the word and dodo the bird, now sadly extinct but with an afterlife of sorts in literature (such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – a line from which gave this blog its name) and in expressions like dead as a dodo:

The dodo seems to have got its name from either Portuguese doudo ‘foolish, simple’ or Dutch dodoor ‘sluggard’; alternatively it may be onomatopoeic, mimicking the bird’s call (PDF). In any case, from the late 19thC the word was applied to people thought to be stupid or behaving stupidly: F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a letter about someone who ‘had been a dodo’ about something. But it’s the phrase dead as a dodo that resonates most strongly nowadays, and serves also as a reminder of a unique creature now lost.

Older posts can be read at my Macmillan Dictionary archive.

A flitch of etymology

October 19, 2015

I was reading Claire Keegan’s short story collection Antarctica* when I came across a fairly uncommon word:

He talks about sheep and cattle and the weather and how this little country of ours is in a woeful state while Bridie sets the table, puts out the Chef sauce and the Colman’s mustard and cuts big, thick slices off a flitch of beef or boiled ham. I sit by the window and keep an eye on the sheep who stare, bewildered, from the car. Da eats everything in sight while I build a little tower of biscuits and lick the chocolate off and give the rest to the sheepdog under the table.

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Foostering around with an Irish word

September 30, 2015

Fooster is one of those words much loved in Hiberno-English but largely restricted to it, not having crossed to wider dialects as galore and smithereens did.* Derived from Irish fústar /’fuːst̪ər/, and alternatively spelt foosther to approximate Irish phonology, it has a meaning more easily described in general terms than precisely pinned down.

To fooster is to fiddle around or fuss with something. It’s a kind of agitated activity: busy but commonly aimless or inefficient. You can fooster with or over something, fooster around or about, or just fooster.

Curiously, there seems to be no associated Irish verb. Niall Ó Dónaill’s Irish-English dictionary translates fústar as ‘fuss, fidgetiness’ and fústaire as a ‘fussy, fidgety person’; fústráil is the act of fussing or fidgeting, while fústrach is the adjectival form.

Sometimes fooster has slightly pejorative connotations, implying mild disapproval: a parent or teacher might give out to a child for foostering. But the word is often emotionally neutral. It has broad appeal and is used in a wide range of ways (see below); Irish culture writer John Byrne called his blog Fústar in its honour.

Since being imported into Irish English – by Sheridan Le Fanu in 1847, says the OED – fooster has been inflected per English norms, giving rise for example to the adjective foostery. Fooster itself doubles as a noun form, but the gerund foostering is more usual in my experience. There’s a strong hint of phonaesthesia about all of these.

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A morsel of logic

September 21, 2015

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about etymology and Lewis Carroll.

Etymology bites back traces the connections between the words morsel, remorse, and mordant – all of which carry the sense of biting, to a more or less explicit degree:

[The] common word remorse, as you may now guess, literally means to bite back, from re- added to our Latin friend mordere. We might not be accustomed to thinking of remorse as a metaphor, but in a broad sense it is – like depend it tucks a physical idea into an abstract one. Remorse is the feeling of our conscience gnawing at us. There was also once a verb remord, meaning ‘feel remorse’, ‘afflict with remorse’, etc., but it is archaic and hasn’t been in popular use for centuries.

* * *

Language, logic, and Lewis Carroll begins a series of monthly posts celebrating the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865. It looks at the relative importance of logic in different types of English, and at the uses to which authors may put this variation:

Grammatical agreement is observed much more strictly in standard and formal varieties of English than in casual speech or non-standard dialects. Authors may exploit this to convey certain facts about a character or sociolinguistic context. . . .

Lewis Carroll did this too. In his short story ‘Eligible Apartments’ he uses non-standard dialogue liberally: ‘Here you has them on the premises’ (instead of have), ‘So we grows them ourselves’ (instead of grow), and ‘It do scratch, but not without you pulls its whiskers’ (do instead of does; pulls instead of pull).

Comments are welcome, and older articles can be seen in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive

Bandying libfixes about

August 26, 2015

I have a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

It’s a libfix-aganza! looks at those productive word-bits dubbed libfixes by linguist Arnold Zwicky – like –gate, –splain(ing), and –pocalypse. My post provides an overview of the phenomenon and a small feast of examples:

There’s iversary to mark an anniversary of some kind (blogiversary, hashtagiversary, monthiversary), kini for variations on the bikini (face-kini, mankini, nun-kini), –preneur for different types of enterprising person (foodpreneur, mumpreneur, solopreneur), –tacular to refer to something impressive in a particular way (cat-tacular, craptacular, spooktacular), likewise –tastic (awesometastic, foodtastic, quintastic), and –zilla, ‘connoting size, significance, awesomeness, or fearsomeness’, as linguist Arnold Zwicky puts it (bridezilla, hogzilla, shopzilla).

All of these combining forms are what Zwicky calls libfixes, a term he coined in 2010, because they are liberated parts of words or portmanteaus but ‘are affix-like in that they are typically bound’. . . . Libfixes behave essentially like affixes but tend to be more semantically specified than, say, de- or –ation or –ible.


Bandying the word ‘bandy’ about considers the word bandy: the various meanings it has gained and the many ways we’ve used it over the centuries.

Funnily enough, Charles Dickens used the word to mean ‘too many bands’ in a letter where he called Dover ‘Not quite a place to my taste, being too Bandy (I mean musical – no reference to its legs).’ . . .

Many of the early, interrelated senses of the word have to do with throwing something aside, or to and fro, or tossing it about. It may be something physical, such as a ball in sport, or more figurative, like words and ideas. If you picture a crowd watching a tennis game you can see why the physical reference was suitable for extension to arguments and other back-and-forth verbal exchanges.

All my posts for Macmillan Dictionary on assorted language-related topics can be read here.

Cutthroat compounds in English morphology

April 28, 2015

A houseboat is a type of boat; a boathouse is a type of house.

This illustrates a common pattern in English morphology: the rightmost part of a compound (houseboat) is usually the ‘head’. In other words it’s the centre or larger category, functionally equivalent to the overall compound, and what precedes it (houseboat) modifies or specifies it. So we say English is ‘right-headed’.

But the semantic relationship between the parts can’t be inferred automatically from their arrangement, as this charming/disarming Bizarro cartoon by Dan Piraro shows:

Bizarro Comics by Dan Piraro - water truck fire truck

Right-headedness is a feature of Germanic languages. Romance languages tend to reverse the order: chaise longue is a type of chaise, lingua franca a type of lingua. Either way, when a compound includes the head it is called endocentric – the centre is internal. In exocentric compounds the head is missing or external: a bigmouth is not a type of mouth and an egghead is not a type of head – both refer to people.

Editor and historical linguist Brianne Hughes studies a remarkable subset of exocentric compounds called agentive and instrumental exocentric verb-noun (V-N) compounds. Mercifully, and memorably, she calls them cutthroat compounds, or cutthroats for short. These are rare in English word-formation but have a long, colourful history and constitute a very interesting category.

Cutthroat compounds name things or people by describing what they do. A cutthroat cuts throats, a telltale tells tales, a wagtail wags its tail, a killjoy kills joy, a scarecrow scares crows, a turncoat turns their coat, rotgut rots the gut, a pickpocket picks pockets, a sawbones saws bones (one of the few plural by default), and breakfast – lest you miss its etymology, hidden in plain sight – breaks a fast. The verb is always transitive, the noun its direct object.

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